Acquaintances of a Burmese man in Australia who last week outed himself as being responsible for the execution of 24 people whilst working as an undercover agent during the 1988 uprising in Burma say there is reason to doubt his claims.
Htoo Htoo Han’s declaration, first reported by Australian press on 18 July, has grabbed news headlines across the Asia-Pacific. The 44-year-old, who fled to Australia in 1996 and now lives in Brisbane, says he was also complicit in the murder of around 100 others during the brutal crackdown on student protestors 23 years ago.
“I did it, I am a war criminal,” he told reporters. He has also claimed that other perpetrators of severe human rights abuses in Burma during the uprising are living in Australia.
But those claims must be closely scrutinised, according to Zeya Oo, who lives in Melbourne and describes himself as a “long-time friend” of Htoo Htoo Han, now an Australian citizen.
He said that while Htoo Htoo Han was known to have had connections with Burmese intelligence in Bangkok, and was an active participant in student movements, his claims to have executed people are “completely impossible”.
“He has always been occupied by [conspiratorial] ideas. He had been telling other Burmese people about this idea [to claim himself a war criminal] in order to focus media attention on Burma,” said Zeya Oo. “He thought this could lead [former Burmese dictator] Than Shwe to be indicted by the International Criminal Court.”
As in the case of Htoo Htoo Han, Zeya Oo’s claims cannot be independently verified. But a number of Burmese community and activist groups in Australia are believed to have distanced themselves from Htoo Htoo Han, while rumours have circulated about a gambling addiction and mental health problems.
“As far as I know, he has a certificate from a psychiatric hospital [certifying that he has mental health problems] and he’s being monitored and is surviving on disability benefits from the government,” said Zeya Oo.
Several people have also said that he spent time in prison in Burma, likely in the early 1990s. He had lived in Bangkok, where Zeya Oo says the two of them joined the exiled All Burma Basic Education Students’ Union, of which Htoo Htoo Han later became a leader.
The BBC’s Burmese website carried a report yesterday quoting an unnamed source in Brisbane who said that he was in prison at the same time as Htoo Htoo Han, and who also doubted his claims, although did not expand on why.
Aung Linn Htut, a former senior-ranking Burmese intelligence officer who defected in 2005 and now lives in the US, was also quoted by the BBC as saying that it was not customary for the Burmese army to assign individuals to carry out executions of civilians, likely alluding to the impression Htoo Htoo Han gave that he was operating alone.
The Australian government has so far not commented on the matter, but police are said to be considering how to investigating his claims.
It comes at a time when calls are mounting for the UN to initiate a probe into whether war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Burma.