Different Views of Darkness
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, January 21, 2019


Different Views of Darkness

By LINN THANT Thursday, March 24, 2011


For over a decade and a half following Burma's 1988 mass uprising, Gen Khin Nyunt and his powerful Military Intelligence (MI) department operated as a virtual “state within a state” and played a leading role in sending thousands of political activists to prison, including myself. But then in 2004, these ruthless authoritarians found themselves on the receiving end of state oppression, as Khin Nyunt and his entire MI staff were purged and many of them were placed under house arrest or imprisoned.

Insein prison
On October 18, 2004, the Burmese government announced that Gen Khin Nyunt, the former military chief and prime minister, had been “permitted to retire on health grounds.” This announcement came at around the same time that Burmese authorities were raiding the offices, properties and houses of MI and its personnel. As one observer remarked, “Even the earrings of the MI officers' wives were nationalized.”

Then at a press conference following the purge, Gen Thura Shwe Mann and Gen Soe Win stated that that Khin Nyunt and his subordinates had committed high treason. In addition, the junta offered amnesty to anyone who provided information and became a state's witness with respect to charges of bribery and corruption brought against MI personnel. Around the same time, the junta issued an announcement signed by its chairman, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, that said some political prisoners—including prominent activists such as student leader Min Ko Naing—had been detained under unlawful charges by MI personnel and would now be released.

In July 2005, Khin Nyunt was tried by a Special Tribunal inside Rangoon's Insein Prison on eight charges, including export-import violations, diverting public property, bribery and corruption. He received a 44-year suspended prison sentence and was placed under house arrest. In addition, about 300 people linked to Khin Nyunt were put on trial. More than 40 were convicted, mainly for “economic crimes,” and some received sentences of more than 100 years in prison.

Members of the former MI upper echelon that were imprisoned included former Brig Gen Kyaw Thein, former Foreign Minister Win Aung (who died in Insein prison), former Col San Pwint and former MI Major Soe Maung Maung (who secretly recorded a visit to Insein Prison by UN special envoy on Human Rights Paulo Sergio Pinheiro).

After their days of glory, the former members of MI found their lives suddenly turned upside down, especially when they were tossed into prison with some of the political activists they had previously thrown in jail through the use of draconian laws, trumped-up charges and kangaroo courts.

Men who were once the cream of Burmese society, who once wore guns at their waists while appearing on state TV and touring around pagodas and monasteries, now sat behind bars and experienced both mental and physical anguish not unlike ordinary prisoners.

But even though the former MI officers were on the surface now sowing what they had reaped and living under the same conditions as their former political victims, the underlying differences between jailed political prisoners and former MI personnel were obvious.

Most political prisoners' punishments in no way fitted the crimes, if any, they had committed. Many were arrested in midnight raids where their houses were ransacked and they were shackled and hooded. Once in prison, almost all of us were subject to mental and physical torture while under interrogation in the man-made hell of detention centers created by none other than MI personnel. This torture was used to force some political prisoners to sign either blank statements or fictional statements that were used to prove their “guilt.”

But we political prisoners were ready to accept our present state of existence, and while hoping for the best in our ongoing fight for freedom, we had already prepared for the worst—including death, torture, sickenss and injury, prolonged imprisonment and broken families. We could accept our circumstances and suffer with determination whatever hardships arose because we knew we were making a sacrifice for our country's future. In addition, we viewed our time in prison as time spent in what we called “the University of Life,” where we studied the most important subjects and learned the most important lessons of being human.

The prison experience of former MI personnel, however, was very different from ours.

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