RANGOON — Approaching what is sometimes considered one’s “golden years,” it would seem that Win Tin was, ironically, destined to suffer in the latter years of his accomplished life.
When he turned 60 in 1989, the seasoned journalist was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his senior position in Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as for his attempt to inform the United Nations of ongoing human rights violations in the country’s prisons. When his 75th birthday came 15 years later, torture, inadequate access to medical treatment, and deprivation of food and water were the presents he received from his jailer—Burma’s ex-military regime.
Now, five years after his release from prison, the 84-year-old wants something from his former captors to make up for his 19 years of suffering: an apology.
“They have to admit what they did to us because many people died,” the ex-political prisoner told The Irrawaddy. “It’s not only for me but for all political prisoners mistreated by the country’s military dictatorship since 1988.”
Calling the decades of heavy-handed oppression “crimes against humanity,” Win Tin warned those responsible that they would face future consequences if repentance was not forthcoming.
“Given the extent of the destruction they wrought on the country and people since 1988, they will surely have bad names in history unless they admit their wrongdoings,” he explained.
He added that an apology alone would not be sufficient, owing to the many repercussions stemming from the former regime’s transgressions.
“They need to reform the government as well, because today’s government is a sort of semi-military regime,” he said. “Many people who are responsible for the abuses are now in higher positions in the government.
“Thirdly, they have to take responsibility for rehabilitation of the former political prisoners’ lives that they destroyed.If they meet all these three points, I’ll forgive them.”
For more than 20 years, Burma’s military regime was a reliable perpetrator of human rights abuses against its own people. Among the list of violations was the government’s penchant for locking up political dissenters.
After the failed nationwide popular uprising in 1988, prisons across Burma saw a sharp increase in the number of inmates as the government scoured the country for opposition voices. As of December 2011, less than a year after the current quasi-civilian came to power, there were 1,572 political prisoners in Burma, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
In 2010, human rights violations in the country were so rampant that the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tómas Ojea Quintana, called for a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country. The formation of a Commission of Inquiry has been publicly supported most recently by the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, Australia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Calls for a truth commission seem to have lost steam, however, with a shifting political landscape in Burma that has included the handover of power to President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government, the release of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and a sweeping parliamentary by-election victory for Suu Kyi’s NLD. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released since Thein Sein took office in March 2011. The president also promised during a trip to Britain in July that all prisoners of conscience would be freed by the end of this year.
With a reformist message being pushed by the government and embraced by the West, there has been little recent discussion about crimes committed by the former military junta, nor of seeking justice for those deeds.
Most of the men believed to have held powerful positions in the former military regime remain unpunished—either leaving the public eye quietly or taking up “civilian” posts in the current government. The regime’s former supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe ceded power in 2011 and by all accounts enjoys a peaceful life in retirement, while the former spy chief Khin Nyunt, who ran the fearsome Military Intelligence Unit that arrested and interrogated countless political activists, now owns an art gallery in Rangoon.
During a recent chance meeting at a funeral, Win Tin said Khin Nyunt told him to “let bygones be bygones.”
“I told him I had no grudge but if he wants us to forget what they did, they have to do something.”
Many ex-political prisoners have expressed fears that any attempt to call for justice might derail the government’s ongoing reform process, which includes national reconciliation, constitutional amendments and peace negotiations with ethnic armed groups.
“We can’t forget what they did to us,” said Tun Kyi from the Rangoon-based Former Political Prisoners Group. “But we should be more focused on what is happening now for the good of the country rather than on our personal interests.”
With many former generals still in positions of power, or thought to be keeping a watchful and influential eye on the reform process, some are daunted by the prospect of seeking justice.
“Even if we wanted justice for my daughter’s killing, we are not sure it’s possible and don’t know how long it would take,” said Khin Htay Win, the mother of Win Maw Oo, who was killed by the Burmese military as one of the 1988 uprising’s participants. Instead of seeking justice, the family blames the killing of the 16-year-old schoolgirl on destiny.
“We no longer hold a grudge,” her father Win Kyu said.
That may be for the best, since Burma’s military-drafted Constitution seems written specifically to protect the former regime against the sort of truth and reconciliation commissions that have been established to bring other criminal regimes to account in neighboring Cambodia and elsewhere.
“We think of justice as some form of retribution or forgiveness of past unjust actions. But this is unlikely because of the structure of power in Burma,” said David Steinberg, a long-time Burma scholar.
“Even a negative reference to retribution for past abuses was frightening to them [the military regime].”
“That is why they have a provision in the Constitution to prevent this from happening,” he added, referring to Section 445 of the 2008 Constitution. It prohibits any legal proceeding brought against the former military regime and its members, “in respect of any act done in the execution of their respective duties.”
Steinberg suggested that the airing of some of these problems at a later date might help close the wounds of the past.
“Apologies are difficult for any government to make,” he said. “But again I would wait until after the 2015 elections, and perhaps you might get some recognition of the mistakes that were made.”
Meanwhile, others in Burma are in firm agreement with Win Tin’s demands.
“We have already forgiven them and never thought about revenge,” said Ko Shell, also a former political prisoner. “But if they want us to forget what we suffered, we surely deserve their apologies.”
Tun Kyi said he wanted the government to assist ex-political prisoners and their families.
“They should enact a law like in other countries, for the welfare of former political prisoners. They are the only ones who could do that,” he said.
Though government leaders have said Burma’s democratization is “irreversible,” not a word has been uttered about past abuses, and the leadership appears far from ready to demand accountability for the country’s checkered human rights record.
“That has shown that they are still under the influence of the former military dictatorship,” Win Tin said.
“If they don’t own up, we must pressure them,” he added.
The winner of the Unesco / Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize and the World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen of Freedom Award acknowledged that the sought-after apology was not as important as amending the 2008 Constitution and peace negotiations with ethnic armed groups.
Still, the veteran journalist said only a concerted push could see his three conditions met.
“If people press more, they [the government] will surely have to find ways to settle it. If not, they won’t bother to think about it.”