Who should I apologize to?” This was the question that U Khin Nyunt, Myanmar’s former spy chief, barked at a reporter who asked him if he was responsible for the treatment of thousands of dissidents by units of his Military Intelligence (MI) after the armed forces seized power in 1988. Rather than countenance any suggestion that he was guilty of crimes against Myanmar’s citizens, the ex-general insisted that the real criminals were those opposed to military rule. “They were guilty and that’s why they were punished according to the law at that time,” he said.
Who, then, should answer for all those thousands of political activists who spent years languishing behind bars? Who was responsible for their torture in interrogation centers and the deaths of so many who succumbed to mistreatment and neglect in Myanmar’s primitive prisons? Who was it that created and controlled a vast information-gathering apparatus that made every citizen feel like a prisoner?
Of course, the whole system that was in place during the long years of military rule was oppressive. But if we confine ourselves to answering just these few questions, the number of people who can be held culpable will be relatively small.
Dozens of MI units harassed, intimidated and detained opposition activists and others regarded with suspicion by the former junta. All of these units reported directly to the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI). And the head of this feared organization was Gen Khin Nyunt, who rapidly rose to prominence after the 1988 coup, becoming the third-most powerful member of the ruling military council.
From 1988 until his purge in 2004, Gen Khin Nyunt oversaw the arrest of around 10,000 people. Many were subjected to torture and farcical trials that resulted in decades-long prison sentences. Both military and civilian courts were forced to do the bidding of the DDSI.
MI units infiltrated almost every organization in the country and maintained networks of spies in almost every neighborhood. Their agents were placed in customs, immigration and police departments, and MI officers even monitored other senior military officials, including top generals.
But the main targets of the police state within a state that Gen Khin Nyunt created were the country’s dissidents. “Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt was trying to destroy the [National League for Democracy] by having local authorities intimidate party members, harass their families, and incarcerate those who refused to resign. The intention was to isolate Aung San Suu Kyi and reduce her party’s legitimacy,” anthropologist Christina Fink wrote in her book “Living Silence,” published in 2001.
Now a civilian who regards himself as a victim of the former regime—he was sentenced to house arrest after his ouster in October 2004, and released in January 2012—U Khin Nyunt continues to downplay his former role.
Last October, respected dissident U Win Tin met the former general who was once his jailer. “Let bygones be bygones,” U Khin Nyunt told the NLD cofounder, who spent nearly 20 years behind bars for advocating a peaceful return to democratic rule.
Recently, I had a chance to speak with U Win Tin about his experiences in prison. He told me that when he was interrogated in July 1989, his captors put a hood over his head and punched him repeatedly in the face. Even after almost all of his teeth fell out and he had trouble eating, he was denied treatment.
“Those guys went overboard,” said the 84-year-old, who is still active as a senior member of the NLD.
Asked what he thought about U Khin Nyunt’s provocative question, he had no trouble providing an answer: “I’ll tell you who he should apologize to. He should apologize to former political prisoners, their families and the whole country.”
Since 1988, at least 160 political detainees have died in custody in Myanmar, including 10 who died while being interrogated, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Among the dead are well-known writer U Thaw Ka, veteran politicians U Sein Win and NLD MP-elect U Tin Maung Win, and student activist Ko Thet Win Aung.
U Khin Nyunt’s refusal to acknowledge his central role in these and other abuses has complicated efforts to move beyond the pain of the past.
“Some former political prisoners have requested acknowledgement and an apology, but Khin Nyunt has asserted that there is no reason to argue about these cases because all was done according to the laws at the time,” said Patrick Pierce of the International Center for Transitional Justice.
But it is completely disingenuous for someone who was once one of the top generals in the country to act as if he was just following orders. As U Win Tin noted, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the leader of the former ruling junta, was not solely responsible for the many abuses committed under military rule. “Khin Nyunt and his people were more responsible [for the treatment of dissidents],” he said. “It was their intention to let us die.”
Indeed, some have argued that U Khin Nyunt was the most powerful member of the ruling regime, at least in the years immediately after it seized power.
“As a protégé of U Ne Win, [Gen Khin Nyunt] came out as the most influential figure in the regime,” wrote Maung Aung Myoe in his book, “Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces Since 1948.”
One incident in particular demonstrated the extent of his power: the forced retirement of then regime leader Snr-Gen Saw Maung on April 23, 1992, a move that “strengthened [Gen Khin Nyunt’s] position significantly,” according to Maung Aung Myoe. Although Snr-Gen Than Shwe assumed the leadership of the regime at that time, he still wielded relatively little actual influence.
Over time, Gen Khin Nyunt sought to increase his power behind the scenes by using his position as spy chief to keep the other generals in check. Under his leadership, officers in the MI were feared by those in the infantry, and the normal hierarchy was subverted. “A captain in the intelligence corps never cared about a colonel in the infantry. The commanding officer of a local intelligence battalion, a major, behaved as if he was of equal power as the regional commander, a major-general, in that region,” wrote Maung Aung Myoe.
When he was in power, Gen Khin Nyunt was incorrectly regarded by some foreign observers and diplomats as a “moderate,” and when he was eventually sacked, this was seen as confirmation that he was a “softliner.” Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth.
The reality was that he had spread his tentacles into every corner of the regime’s affairs, and was a central player in all of its often brutal activities. He victimized not only dissidents but also any group that he saw as a threat to the junta’s hold on power. Thus he was instrumental in shutting down the country’s universities, reopening them only after they had been relocated to remote, ill-equipped campuses where students could no longer organize protests, or get a meaningful education.
The people of Myanmar suffered terribly under Gen Ne Win, the dictator who seized power in 1962 and was finally forced to step down in 1988, but many now have worse memories of the years when his protégé, Gen Khin Nyunt, still wore a uniform.
For all he has done, U Khin Nyunt and his key subordinates deserve to face justice. Unfortunately, under the current delicate political circumstances in Myanmar, that is unlikely to happen. But until he makes amends to all those whose lives he has ruined, U Khin Nyunt will never find the peace he seeks through meditation and donations to pagodas. If justice doesn’t extract its due, karma certainly will.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of the English-language edition of The Irrawaddy.
This story was first published in the January 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.