The Spring before Khin Nyunt’s Fall
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The Spring before Khin Nyunt’s Fall


By AUNG ZAW OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10


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For a while, the Burmese junta looked like it might be ready to meet the West halfway. The ouster of the regime’s spy chief ended all that

IN early 2000, Maj Aung Lynn Htut began his new assignment as the deputy chief of the Burmese embassy in Washington, DC, with a mission to improve ties with the incoming administration of President George W Bush.

It was not his first time in the US capital. In 1987, the graduate of the elite Defense Services Academy spent three months in Washington receiving training from the CIA.

Then Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt waves to the media while heading to a summit in Pagan in 2003. (Photo: AFP)
When he returned to the US in 2000, Aung Lynn Htut served as an officer in the counterintelligence department of the Office of the Chief of Military Intelligence (OCMI). His boss was Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, secretary 1 of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and head of the junta’s powerful intelligence apparatus.

Khin Nyunt was also the architect of a series of ceasefire agreements with domestic insurgent groups that had strengthened the regime’s hold on power over the course of the preceding decade.

By the time Bush took office, Khin Nyunt appeared to believe that a détente with the junta’s staunchest international critic was also possible, according to Aung Lynn Htut.

“We waited until Bush came to power and then we started lobbying in DC,” said the former major.

In an extensive interview with The Irrawaddy, Aung Lynn Htut provided an inside look at this pivotal time in recent Burmese history, when the ruling regime seemed to be ready to turn a new page in its relations with the West.

As he revealed, however, it was also a period of intensifying rivalries within the junta.  

Before Khin Nyunt could begin his experiment in reshaping ties with the US and other Western countries, he had to get a green light from the SPDC’s top leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

As the strongman who called all the shots, Than Shwe was an inveterate hardliner who did not always take kindly to Khin Nyunt’s conciliatory overtures. But the intelligence chief’s success in sidelining former insurgents had allowed the regime to focus on its war of attrition against democratic forces; so, in a nod to Khin Nyunt’s proven ability to neutralize opponents through guile, Than Shwe gave him the go-ahead to work his magic on Washington.

Aung Lynn Htut’s assignment to Washington was one of the first tentative steps towards ending the regime’s isolation from governments it had long regarded as hostile.

Another part of the charm offensive was the launch of a colorful English-language newspaper, The Myanmar Times, which would present a more sophisticated image of the regime than the stodgy, Stalinistic fare offered by the state-run press.

As a further step, the regime hired DCI Group, a Washington-based lobbying firm, in 2002. The firm was paid US $348,000 to represent the junta, which had been strongly condemned by the US State Department for its human rights record. US Justice Department lobbying records show that DCI worked to “begin a dialogue of political reconciliation” with the regime.

The firm led a PR campaign to burnish the junta’s image, drafting releases praising Burma’s efforts to curb the drug trade and denouncing claims that the regime had used rape as a weapon in its military campaigns against ethnic insurgents.

By this time, the regime was becoming genuinely concerned that Bush’s policy on Burma was getting tougher. “We thought we had to counter it,” said Aung Lynn Htut.

He and his senior officers gathered information about who they could approach to ask for help. Khin Nyunt’s office started to reach out to Burma scholars who were sympathetic to the regime and who disagreed with the US government’s sanctions policy. Disgruntled prominent dissidents were also approached in a bid to persuade them to switch sides.

The regime also invited senior UN officials to come to Burma.

Joseph Verner Reed, the UN undersecretary and special adviser to former UN chief Kofi Annan and now to Ban Ki-moon, arrived in Rangoon to attend an event marking United Nations Day in 2002.

The high-ranking UN official was known to be close to some senior officers of the Burmese regime. Interestingly, he was listed on the board of the U Thant Institute in New York.



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