Until his downfall in 2004, Khin Nyunt had been head of military intelligence as well as holding various other posts. He was a brutal man, Myanmar’s torturer-in-chief, responsible for monitoring and arresting activists. He was a staunch defender of the dictatorship, both as a man willing to crush any resistance internally, and defending the regime internationally.
But at the same time, unlike many of his colleagues in senior positions in the regime, he was willing to engage with the international community. For diplomats frozen out from access to anyone senior in the regime, Khin Nyunt was a godsend. He was also smart enough to use the kind of language diplomats wanted to hear. He promoted the false narrative of internal struggles within the regime, battles between hardliner and reformers, framing himself as being in the reformer camp.
When he was arrested in 2004, some of the media reported the event as being a setback for reformers inside the regime. Some diplomats said the same.
Following Khin Nyunt’s arrest in 2004, officially for corruption, in reality due to internal power struggles, a handful of diplomats and UN officials in Myanmar began using his downfall to promote their own political agenda in Myanmar. Going against the policies of the governments they were supposed to represent, they wanted to end sanctions and other pressure, and use international aid to reach out to mythical reformers within the regime. They promoted a narrative that Khin Nyunt had been removed because he was a reformer. They said should have been supported by the international community. They claimed that he had reached out and tried to change things, but the response from the international community had been more sanctions, more criticism. (Without pointing out some of these sanctions were in response to the Depayin massacre where an attempt was made to kill Aung San Suu Kyi, and where many NLD supporters were killed).
They argued that if Khin Nyunt had been rewarded by relaxing international pressure instead of increasing it, he would have been able to demonstrate that reforms bring benefits and this would strengthen the hand of the reformers within the regime.
Not all diplomats were fooled though. As U.S. diplomatic cable from August 2005, released by Wikileaks, stated, “The hypothesis being that the disgraced prime minister was a moderate or a reformer who lost out to the hard-liners in a power struggle ... General Khin Nyunt was a hard-liner, albeit a more polished and approachable one. He was a pragmatist who cultivated foreign countries and a purported dialogue with the opposition simply as a means to mollify the international community and perpetuate the regime’s absolute control.”
Nevertheless, this small group of diplomats continued pushing the false narrative of Khin Nyunt being a reformer, and of an opportunity lost. Sanctions and pressure had not promoted change, they claimed, it had undermined prospects for change. They persuaded other officials, academics and journalists that this is what had happened. A completely false version of history became accepted reality for many.
When Thein Sein began his reforms, remarkably similar in style to those of Khin Nyunt, but much grander in scale, these diplomats and their followers were back on the scene. Most were wearing different hats, but their story was the same. Don’t make the same mistake as with Khin Nyunt they argued. Seize this moment, back the reforms. For government ministers and international officials, with no knowledge of the true history, they sounded credible. They had more than a decade’s experience of Myanmar. Their arguments were persuasive. It provided decision makers with a helpful rationale for endorsing the reforms and dropping sanctions, which for various other political and economic reasons, they wanted to do anyway. The Khin Nyunt ‘lost opportunity’ narrative gave them what appeared to be a credible justification for rushing to endorse the reform process, despite many concerns about how genuine it was. Those arguing for more caution before relaxing pressure could be dismissed as not understanding the complexities.
Thein Sein achieved what Khin Nyunt could not. Almost all sanctions have been lifted, aid and trade is flowing, Myanmar is no longer a pariah state, and the military are still in control. When those goals were achieved, reforms slowed, then went into reverse. Thein Sein, like Khin Nyunt, is no believer in democracy.
Yet despite repeatedly being proved wrong, the hardliners versus reformer narrative still lives on. Its new reincarnation is Shwe Mann. Like Khin Nyunt, he was directly involved in human rights violations. He won his Thura medal for his time in Karen State, where soldiers under his command committed war crimes. Also like Khin Nyunt, he was adept at reaching out to the international community to present himself as a reformer.
He is being presented as having strengthened the influence of Parliament, but if this did happen, it was only because he used Parliament to try to promote his own influence. His closeness to Aung San Suu Kyi was a strategic calculation for his own personal ambitions, not because he believes in democracy and human rights. He is praised for supporting proposals to remove the Parliamentary military veto from the Constitution, but he knew full well it would not pass. The vote was about positioning himself for after the next election, when Parliament is likely to have an NLD majority.
Media headlines and comment articles describe his downfall as being a ‘setback’ or ‘blow’ to reforms. This ignores not only his history, but also his actions as Speaker, ranging from his blocking ratification of the convention against torture, to his recent support for banning media from observing Parliament.
The battle between Thein Sein and Shwe Mann is not about a difference in policy. It is about two former generals who want to be President. Thein Sein used to be presented as a reformer struggling against hardliners, now the same is starting to be said about Shwe Mann. This narrative was wrong about Khin Nyunt, it was wrong about Thein Sein, and it’s wrong about Shwe Mann. It has contributed to the international community making serious mistakes in its approach to Myanmar, mistakes which have helped perpetuate military control and human rights abuses. It’s time to move on from this false and simplistic narrative.
Mark Farmaner is Director of Burma Campaign UK
The views expressed are solely the views of the author.