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In his own words: the rise and fall of Khin Nyunt

In a rare interview since the lifting of his house arrest, the ex-spy boss and former prime minister talks about the events leading to his downfall, peace deals with ethnic groups, his ‘brotherly’ admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi and the awakening of his faith

Bangkokpost 8 April 2012

The quiet narrow street leading to our destination is lined with big houses and mansions once inhabited by some of Myanmar’s former ruling military elite. Most of them, including the now officially retired Senior General Than Shwe, have moved to new homes in the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, many with new civilian jobs. However, one formerly very high-ranking member of the old military regime, former prime minister General Khin Nyunt, is still living in Yangon. No new house has been built for him in Nay Pyi Taw; in fact until recently he was under house arrest at his home in Yangon.

HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED: Former Myanmar prime minister and military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt arrives to cast his vote at a polling station in Yangon on April 1.

Once dubbed the “prince of evil” by the Western media, Gen Khin Nyunt was freed in January by the new government led by President Thein Sein, himself a former general and a junior to Gen Khin Nyunt in the old regime. The charges levelled against him in October 2004 by the now-defunct State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) led by Sen Gen Than Shwe, were “disobedience” and “corruption”.

Looking back on his years in power and subsequent downfall, Gen Khin Nyunt says he has no regrets.

“I have a clear conscience as far as my service to the country. I happened to be at a particular turn in my country’s history. That was not my choice. I have been a sitting duck for all kinds of politically motivated attacks from all quarters, domestic and abroad. I understand this is not unique to me. This has been the case in many other countries too. I have never abused the power entrusted in me or built personal wealth,” he said.

“I never play golf,” he said suddenly. “My mentor U Tint Swe told me not to. You lose your precious time for work and it will also cost you risky social talks. I returned all the golf sets sent to me as gifts.

“I would say, in doing my job in the past, some of my colleagues might have misconceptions about me. However, I let all bygones be bygones. I will not waste time digging up or straightening out the past. I devote most of my time to religion now. Last week, I donated 1,000 pairs of robes to the Sangha to honour the 75th birthday of the Venerable Thitagu Sayadaw, one of the spiritual authorities of my faith,” said Gen Khin Nyunt.

The general has, he says, abandoned any aspirations to once again ascend the political heights. He has no desire to return to public life or politics, at least in the near future.

“Right now, I am devoting my time to running a small charity organisation in my hometown. I have been, and I always will be, just an ordinary citizen of the country, but of course with all the rights and responsibilities of an ordinary citizen in a democracy. I am satisfied with that.”

He and his family spent seven years in custody, but the original term of imprisonment far exceeded his life span. Two of his key followers, Colonel San Pwint and Brigadier Tin Ngwe, remain in jail. Another, Colonel Kyaw Win, died in prison.

At the time of Gen Khin Nyunt’s fall from grace rumours circulated among the public that Gen Than Shwe had removed him to pre-empt a coup. Three truckloads of gold ingots were said to have been found in his home compound and carted away by state authorities. However, the secret trial against him was brief, and the public was kept in the dark about what took place.

Gen Khin Nyunt is considered by some to be among the least corrupt and most moderate of the ruling elite of his time, but the once powerful general gained notoriety in the Western media for being the intelligence chief of a military junta which fiercely oppressed its political opponents, including Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Gen Khin Nyunt is said to have been atrocious in his dealings with anti-junta politicians.

SHOT CALLERS: Former dictator Ne Win, above, and retired Senior General Than Shwe.

Gen Khin Nyunt is also known as the driver behind the “seven-step road map to democracy”, which had a role in Myanmar’s current political reforms. The idea of a path to reconciliation between the Myanmar junta and the Western-backed NLD was first put forward in late 2003 or early 2004 by the Thai government led by Thaksin Shinawatra. It was known as the “Bangkok Process”. Gen Khin Nyunt visited Bangkok and appropriated the outline, and soon after Myanmar resumed its long stalled national convention to draft a constitution.

Less than a year later Gen Khin Nyunt was put on trial, blacklisted because of corruption within military intelligence organisations he headed and possibly also his overtures to ethnic groups and the pro-democracy camp and/or jealousy or disapproval from the power elite over lucrative business deals to which he was connected. At the time of Gen Khin Nyunt’s arrest, his son Ye Naing Win was an executive for Myanmar’s only internet service provider, Bagan Cybertech, which had just signed a multi-million dollar deal with Shin Satellite Plc, controlled by the family of former prime minister Thaksin, to lease transponder capacity. Bagan Cybertech was subsequently taken over by the military.

THE CLIMB TO THE TOP

Gen Khin Nyunt has kept a low profile since his release from house arrest three months ago, and has turned down requests for interviews by the Burmese language programmes of Western media. As our car approached his house, our guide cautioned us not to take any photos without first seeking permission. As the gate swung open, a man led us to a waiting area next to the newly-painted mansion in the middle of a large compound.

Then another man led us into the inner sitting room inside the house. Within a few seconds, a smiling Gen Khin Nyunt emerged from another room.

With seven years of house arrest showing on his face, the 71-year-old former intelligence chief started the conversation with a story about his childhood. Born in a small agricultural town near the sea, about 50km southeast of Yangon, he has five elder sisters. His father was a country lawyer. He recalled his experience living under Japanese occupation as a boy. That experience motivated him to join the army as a cadet officer in 1959.

He talked fondly about his military mentor, Colonel Tint Swe. His rise to prominence began when he was only a captain. It was in the late 1970s, when Myanmar’s socialist dictator, General Ne Win, who seized power in a 1962 coup, was looking for a personal aide. He asked Tint Swe to find a trustworthy security officer for his household. Tint Swe sent Gen Khin Nyunt, but not before giving him a list of ”dos and don’ts”. Gen Khin Nyunt worked hard, and earned the trust of Gen Ne Win in six months.

After the downfall of Gen Ne Win in 1988, Gen Khin Nyunt became the frontman of a new regime led by General Saw Maung which harshly suppressed the student-led uprising of 1988 and locked out the NLD after its landslide 1990 election victory. It was Gen Khin Nyunt who drafted Order 1/90 for the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), declaring that the wining party had to wait for office until a new constitution was drawn up and approved by a referendum. The order made him the main target of attacks by the global media.

When Gen Saw Maung was quietly removed in 1992, apparently for his promise to return the military to the barracks after a general election, Gen Than Shwe, from the Engineering Corps, succeeded him. Gen Khin Nyunt also survived this transition of power and the junta later re-fashioned its mission _ from ”law and order restoration” to ”peace and development”, with a name change from SLORC to SPDC.

The SPDC’s stated aims _ infrastructure expansion and a switch to a market economy _ were almost missions impossible for the unpopular regime, especially as it was under Western-imposed economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the SPDC hung on to power, and Gen Khin Nyunt remained at centre stage until his downfall in late 2004.

ETHNIC PEACEMAKER

Asked what was his greatest achievement while in power, Gen Khin Nyunt replied without hesitation: ”Of course, my peace deals. Our indigenous brethren are basically simple and honest though they may have certain prejudices in their minds. But once they trust you, you can win everything.”

In addition to his mostly undisclosed dealings as head of military intelligence, Gen Khin Nyunt could be described as a ”workaholic” among those who were trying to end the longstanding ethnic conflicts that began with Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. As ”secretary number one”, his other official position in the junta, he made numerous initiatives offering concessions to various armed minority groups.

The Kokang led by Phone Kyar Shin was the first of the 17 armed ethnic groups that made a ceasefire agreement with him. This group of Chinese descent were not happy with members of the Myanmar Communist Party roaming in their region, and were also weary of the long civil war. They did not believe their eyes, said Gen Khin Nyunt, when accompanied by a handful of officials he risked his life by walking into their territory in response to their invitation for him to make initial contacts for peace negotiations.

”It was like walking into a killing zone,” he said. ”There were hundreds of Kokang soldiers armed with rifles on high ridges on both sides of the hills.” He later told them he had entrusted his life into their hands. The dramatic gesture contributed to a breakthrough, and a series of ceasefire deals, including with the Wa and Kachin, followed suit.

Gen Khin Nyunt was also close to winning a comprehensive peace agreement with the Karen National Union under the late General Bo Mya. During their direct talks in Yangon in 2002, Gen Khin Nyunt hosted a birthday party for the KNU leader at a five-star hotel. By that time, Gen Bo Mya had already made up his mind and pledged to sign a peace agreement to end the civil war. However, Gen Bo Mya’s failing health delayed it, and KNU hard-liners subsequently foiled the peace plan, said Gen Khin Nyunt.

Asked why he had succeeded in dealing with minority groups, Gen Khin Nyunt said: ”I started out with what I could offer, not with my demands, and with absolute sincerity on my part. You must win their trust.”

Regarding the current impasse in the renewed peace efforts with the Kachin, he said: ”They have their tribal and religious leaders. Dealing with the KIO [Karen Independence Organisation] or the KIA alone is not enough.” He did not elaborate, but said he still remembers the cordial talks he had with KIO leaders like Tuja Manam and Colonel James Lum Dau.

Tuja Manam was one of the key participants in the process of writing Myanmar’s constitution, both in the national convention and later in the drafting commission from 1994 to 2008. After the new constitution was adopted, he resigned from the KIO in order to enter the new political landscape, of which he was an architect. But his attempt to stand in the 2010 general election was rejected by the SPDC, which suspected his old KIO past. He tried again in last Sunday’s by-elections, but the government cancelled all three constituencies in Kachin State, including his, for security reasons.

Col James Lum Dau, the KIO foreign affairs chief in Bangkok, also has been vocal in defending constructive engagement with the Myanmar military government.

Overall, Gen Khin Nyunt signed as many as 17 ceasefire deals and gave assistance to economic development schemes in ethnic territories. These initiatives, combined with the misconduct of hundreds of his followers who amassed personal wealth using him as their shield, could have been the recipe for his downfall.

CHANGING TIMES

Myanmar is a different country in 2012. With Mrs Suu Kyi’s decision to cooperate with the government led by President Thein Sein and contest last Sunday’s by-elections, a series of speedy liberalisation steps have taken place to the surprise of the world. Somehow a new kind of politics seems to be taking off in Myanmar. There are criticisms of the constitution and its stipulation that 25% of the membership of the National Assembly must be made up of active military personnel, but the daily motions, debates and votes in the elected assembly in Nay Pyi Taw are freely mirrored in the domestic media without prior approval of the state censor board, as was needed before. More than 200 weekly journals are thriving with a news-hungry readership.

Open mass meetings and events commemorating the struggle against the old regime are now tolerated. The number of tourists visiting Myanmar has increased almost overnight. Western media are optimistic, yet cautious, about the rapid political changes. Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide captured this mood in an article published in the Christian Science Monitor, titled, ”Go on Thein Sein, surprise us.”

Foreign ministers and diplomats from Western democracies have rushed to Myanmar to appraise the thaw. Washington has sent special envoy Derek Mitchell six times in seven months to Yangon to meet Mrs Suu Kyi. Foreign observers were also allowed to monitor last Sunday’s by-elections, although there were complaints of inadequate access.

Twice in our conversation, Gen Khin Nyunt emphasised his code of ethics as a military officer. He said he was loyal to three things: the country, the institution (ie, the military), and his superiors. In 2002, the spoiled grandsons of Gen Ne Win planned a putsch against Gen Than Shwe, whom they despised. As intelligence chief, Gen Khin Nyunt had to arrest these young men he had once babysat. Those close to him said he was almost moved to tears, but he was determined to do his job.

Regarding speculation that he may have been behind an attempt on the life of Mrs Suu Kyi on May 30, 2003, when her convoy was attacked by pro-junta men on the outskirts of Depayin Township in Sagaing Division, Gen Khin Nyunt said it was him who actually saved her from the angry mob. ”I sent my men to snatch her from the mob that night and they brought her to safety at a nearby army cantonment,” he said.

The incident, known as the Depayin massacre, left at least 50 people dead, according to the opposition.

Many observers have indicated where Gen Khin Nyunt’s vulnerability lay at the time of his downfall. He did not have solid backing from any of the powerful regional military commanders who practically ruled the country as warlords during the long junta era. He had been a desk officer rather than a fighting commander in the field. While ordinary people feared him because he was the actual CEO of the state’s terror machine, army generals on the front lines disdained him. They gained enemies in the long war against ethnic groups, while Gen Khin Nyunt gained more friends through peace deals.

FAITH IN REFORMS

Gen Khin Nyunt sees the reforms now under way in Myanmar as an extension of the efforts he helped initiate during his time in office.

”President U Thein Sein is one of my old colleagues. I respect him as well as his new role in transforming our country into democracy. He is continuing what we have collectively endeavoured throughout the years. I wish him success in his work and I will regard his achievements as my own.

Gen Khin Nyunt says despite his reputation while in office he also respects democracy icon Mrs Suu Kyi.

”I once said that I regarded Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as my own [younger] sister. This remains the same, my brotherly admiration and respect for her resoluteness. I have a track record of trying my best to work together with civilian politicians of all shapes and ages. Unfortunately, certain situations needed more time to mature during my time. So I sincerely wish her success in collaborating with the new government and bringing our country to democracy.”

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