Mentor and Tormentor
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Saturday, March 23, 2019


Mentor and Tormentor

By San San Tin AUG, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.7

Paw Thit could have taught Kyaw Win much about the meaning of art; instead Burma’s best-loved art critic is behind bars, a victim of the system the inscrutable Kyaw Win represents. No Burmese artist or art lover could ever fail to recognize the title of A Quest for Beauty, a celebrated book of art criticism by a writer of rare gifts named Paw Thit. This excellent handbook of Burmese art history, covering every imaginable "ism", has earned the admiration of countless aficionados of the fine arts in Burma. Certainly, a passionate amateur painter like Maj-Gen Kyaw Win, deputy to Military Intelligence (MI) chief Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, could be counted among those who can truly appreciate Paw Thit’s sensitivity to line and color, light and shade, perspective and depth of artistic vision. And if Paw Thit ever had a chance to review Kyaw Win’s work on display at the G. V. Gallery, in Rangoon’s exclusive Golden Valley suburb, he would no doubt offer words of encouragement to this dedicated dilettante. Cutting a dignified but kindly figure, he might make a critical comparison to the work of U Lun Kywe, Burma’s most famous impressionist painter, while acknowledging that Kyaw Win had true talent and an eye for beauty. Sadly, however, this encounter is unlikely to ever take place. For Paw Thit, Burma’s most respected art critic, is none other than U Win Tin, a veteran journalist who was once one of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s most valued advisors—a role that has cost him his freedom. For a dozen years now, U Win Tin, a.k.a. Paw Thit, has been a political prisoner in Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison. Held in solitary confinement for more than a decade, but unbent in his convictions, he continues to exert inestimable influence on Burma’s artistic community. It is intriguing to imagine how Kyaw Win must feel about the fate of a man who might well have become his artistic mentor, if only his military master, Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, had not placed him behind bars. Among artists in Rangoon, to whom Kyaw Win is a familiar figure, this slim, dark-skinned man is something of a mystery. "It is interesting to see his hybrid personality," remarked one artist who knows him well. "The two sides of his personality seem to blend together—the tender-heartedness of the artist, and the hard will of an interrogator and torturer." Political analysts say that Maj-Gen Kyaw Win is one of the brightest and most pragmatic members of the elite Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), a think-tank headed by Khin Nyunt. With his quick intelligence and affable manner, Kyaw Win is eminently well suited to his present task of acting as a liaison between the ruling junta and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic opposition. Although she remains a prisoner in her own home, Suu Kyi has been engaged in secret talks with the regime, conducted mainly through its enigmatic emissary, since late last year. While nothing is known of the substance of these talks, Kyaw Win’s involvement guarantees that however tough the negotiations may become, these encounters will remain unfailingly cordial. Kyaw Win belongs to the generation that witnessed Burma’s fateful slide into militarism. On July 7, 1962, the army ruthlessly suppressed student protests against a military coup staged by Gen Ne Win, who was to remain Burma’s supreme leader for more than a quarter of a century. Students of the prestigious Rangoon University were gunned down in cold blood, and the historic Students’ Union was dynamited with many students still inside, claiming further casualties. Kyaw Win decided early on that the best way to positively influence the newly installed regime was from within. "Students from the class of ’62 can remember Kyaw Win as one of the students who believed it was possible to reform the army from the inside," recalls one contemporary. "Many of them joined the army, but gradually they forgot what they had once said." Thirty-three years later, in 1995, Kyaw Win joined celebrations for Rangoon University’s Diamond Jubilee as one of its most illustrious alumni; Burma, meanwhile, remained as lost as ever in the throes of a relentless cycle of military-sponsored violence. Kyaw Win may have forgotten his original mission, but he never lost touch with the more sensitive side of his nature. In the mid-1990s, many Burmese were surprised to see a portrait of a Kachin woman on the cover of the Kyee Bwa Yay ("Prosperity") monthly business magazine. It was not the conventional, uncontroversial style and subject that caught their eye, but the name of the cover illustrator.

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