Roundtable: Khin Nyunt's legacy

Oct 22, 2008 (DVB), It has been four years since general Khin Nyunt, the State Peace and Development Council’s most powerful military intelligence chief and prime minister, was arrested and put under house arrest.

Although it is not certain whether he is a true reformer, Khin Nyunt is seen by some diplomats and political analysts as more broadminded than the current military leaders, as someone who preferred dialogue to confrontation and sought international cooperation.

Is this reputation deserved? What impact did he have on Burmese politics and the military, and how have things changed since his downfall?

DVB discussed Khin Nyunt's impact and legacy with major Aung Lin Htut, a former Military Intelligence agent under Khin Nyunt who is now based in Washington, Htay Aung, a Thailand-based military analyst and David Htaw, a Karen National Union member who took part in peace talks with the army.

While the State Peace and Development Council gave corruption as the reason for general Khin Nyunt's arrest, former military intelligence agent major Aung Lin Htut said many political factors also played a part.

Aung Lin Htut: "The main reason for the downfall of general Khin Nyunt was political. Even when I was working in 1999, he would tell us, 'I want to quit'. After 2001 he would say, 'If I quit you will be in trouble, that’s why I am not quitting'. What I'm trying to say is that there were internal problems.

"The National League for Democracy, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, played a crucial role in these political matters. In Burmese politics, if we don’t do things together we can’t achieve anything. We believed that by working with armed ceasefire groups, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD and other political groups and the Tatmadaw [armed forces], would we be able to find a way out for the country, for the good of the country. But later, there were problems in political affairs, ethnic national affairs and personal wealth issues.

"For example, there were divisions between the educated and uneducated people. Senior general Than Shwe’s wife Daw Kyaing Kyaing is not educated. What she said was, 'I don’t care if I am uneducated; I can force you educated people to do things for me at any time'. On the other hand, general Khin Nyunt’s wife Daw Khin Win Shwe was a doctor. In Daw Kyaing Kyaing’s group, there were people like general Shwe Mann’s wife who were not educated. The clashes between the wives were also relevant.

"Within their families, general Khin Nyunt’s sons had interests in Bagan Cybertech, and worked as managing directors. On the other side, general Than Shwe’s daughters were not educated but all four daughters worked as secretaries in the Foreign Ministry. And they would demand this or that permit and sell them on. There were scandals on this side too."

Aung Lin Htut: "The main thing I learned was that in 2004, after general Khin Nyunt returned from medical treatment in Singapore, he and general Than Shwe had a big row. While general Khin Nyunt was away, major Myint Naing and his group had seized the Na-Sa-Ka [border control forces under Khin Nyunt’s control] at Muse. And foreign minister U Win Aung and deputy minister U Khin Maung had been fired without his knowledge.

"[Khin Nyunt] met with general Than Shwe and insisted that as he was prime minister and as military intelligence was under his command, he should have been informed. General Khin Nyunt reportedly asked for permission to quit, but general Than Shwe did not allow him to go. He placated him by telling him he had many more duties to fulfil.

"Prior to this, many people said he had told general Khin Nyunt to stop working as intelligence chief and hand over to Myint Swe, who was 15 years his junior. The nature of intelligence is you can’t just put any leader there. You need experience. There was another argument over that. Then, he was told a second time to hand over to major Yeh Myint. General Khin Nyunt refused. Then he was told that as prime minister he should stay away from intelligence. And the roadmap was created again. Before that, as you know, in the Depayin incident, he repaired things. Even at that time, we could tell that the situation was not good."

Military analyst Htay Aung said that general Khin Nyunt was not seen by most people to be any different from the other generals, but had followed a different approach on some issues.

Htay Aung: "The general public will regard general Khin Nyunt as a pea from the same pod [as the ruling military]. There were many examples of the intelligence organisation systematically planning and leading the actions to cause instability and violence during the 1988 nationwide uprising. We can't assume that general Khin Nyunt sincerely wanted dialogue and national reconciliation. Nevertheless, general Khin Nyunt was not the same type of thuggish, warmongering generals, as his duty demanded that he looked at the whole situation to carry out his work.

"As for the ethnic ceasefire groups, the absence of general Khin Nyunt has made their situation worse. From 1989, the person who led the peace negotiations was general Khin Nyunt. Another thing is that the relationship with the NLD was quite unusual [under Khin Nyunt]. The secret talks with the NLD started during general Khin Nyunt’s time. This might have been due to international pressure on him, but talks with the NLD took place under his leadership. After his removal, the talks stopped and have not restarted to this day."

Although the presence or absence of general Khin Nyunt and group hasn't made much difference to the lives of the majority of the Burmese people, his departure severely affected ethnic national groups who were still engaged in talks with the army, particularly the KNU.

Khin Nyunt told KNU leader general Mya during a meeting in January 2004 that fifty years of fighting had brought no benefit to the Karen people, the government army or the wider Burmese people and he and general Mya pledged to make life better for both sides.

But as general Mya said at the meeting, generals Than Shwe and Maung Aye were on one side and general Khin Nyunt on the other and the talks with ethnic groups collapsed.

Later, talks were not negotiations but demands for surrender and the fighting continues to this day with no progress towards a settlement.

The KNU's David Htaw, who took part in the peace talks, said the situation had deteriorated since Khin Nyunt's resignation.

David Htaw: "In January 2004, you could say that we had reached a gentleman's agreement. In February, we met again. When we met [on 18] October, general Khin Nyunt had resigned from his duties. During that time, we lost contact for a while. In March 2005, we met with the new group for discussions and on 5 May, we met again.

"The difficulty was, when we were dealing with general Khin Nyunt, he and the people in his group understood the nature of negotiation, but the groups we met in March and May [2005] just carried out the orders from the top. What I mean is, they had a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. Since then, there has been no face to face meeting.

"My analysis is that this is one of the reasons for the downfall of general Khin Nyunt. He started the initiative for ceasefire , number one, he allowed the ceasefire groups to set up businesses; number two, he allowed them to legally carry weapons; number three, he gave them permission to attend the national convention and discuss political matters.

"This is one of the things that caused problems between general Khin Nyunt and his colleagues. Hardliners who had been prepared to fight to the death saw this as giving in to deadly foes. In my view, this was a policy shift."

Looking to the future, Htay Aung said the military would continue to cling to power for as long as it is able.

Htay Aung: "This military government can continue to hold onto power. As long as the army obeys their order, they are still in a position to carry out what they want to do by any means. So they will continue until they reach the last step of their roadmap, the [2010] election. But that won’t be the end of it.

"If we look at the existing constitution, the people will not have the opportunity, democratic rights and guarantees to build a stable and peaceful country. Without these, the public will not be satisfied. [The regime] can only govern by the sword. As the situation changes gradually, opposition will keep coming from the people."

Aung Lin Htut said the opposition needed a strategy to bring concerted pressure to bear on the military leadership.

Aung Lin Htut: "In my experience, general Than Shwe is unable to endure pressure. Although we are applying pressure, we are not in a position to do it effectively. I once said that you can’t give general Than Shwe a carrot, you have to give him the stick.

"Don’t leave out the UN. Matters such as child soldiers and rape are very alarming for general Than Shwe, as is the [forced labour] issue. They prefer it if these issues fade into the background. But they are happening all the time. We need to submit reports and photographs to the UN.

"Apart from you media people, it is very rare for the opposition to publicise news from inside of the army or the government's activities themselves. When I was working for government intelligence, we had to find out a lot what the opposition were doing. Based on what we found out, we would think about how to counter their activities. The opposition needs a strategy and contingency plans. We have to work out what to do. In order to do that, we all need to be united."

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw

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