Former Burmese chief of intelligence Khin Nyunt, once feared and loathed for the torture his agents inflicted, now runs an art gallery. Former Burmese dictator Than Shwe is reportedly enjoying a peaceful retirement in a secluded compound, while family members who grew rich during his military rule live luxurious lifestyles that contrast with the crippling poverty that afflicts most of the country. And a former top general in what was one of the world’s most repressive governments, Thein Sein, is president, hailed both inside the country and abroad as a great reformer. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
To the outside world, Myanmar’s transition from military rule to fledgling democracy can appear jarringly forgiving.
Even those who suffered torture and years of solitary confinement as political prisoners say there is no point calling for retribution. They cite the role of Buddhism, a certain pragmatism and, in some cases, political calculations for their restraint.
The old elite — the generals and the businesspeople who were close to them — are reinventing themselves.
The most stark example may be Khin Nyunt, who opened his art gallery and cafe last month in the compound of his yellow-ocher mansion in Yangon that during the junta’s rule was off-limits to all but those with top military clearance.
Khin Nyunt spends his mornings in prayer surrounded by Buddhist statues and his afternoons tending to an orchid garden.
“I don’t want to analyze or look back on the actions of the past,” Khin Nyunt said in an interview. “Look at how peaceful my life is now, very peaceful.”
Unlike in other countries emerging from years of extreme repression, there have been few calls in Myanmar for trials, war crimes tribunals or even something like the truth-and-reconciliation commission that helped South Africa move beyond apartheid.
The tone has been set by the most famous of the thousands of the country’s former political prisoners, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent a total of 15 years under house arrest before her release in 2010.
“I, for one, am entirely against the whole concept of revenge,” she said earlier this month to an audience of Burmese government officials and foreign business executives.
“I would like us to have the courage to be able to face our past squarely, but making it quite clear that I personally am not for trying anybody or punishing them or seeking revenge or taking the kind of action that will destroy people for what they have done in the past,” she said.
For Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, which leads the opposition in the Burmese parliament, there is a critical political element to the pragmatism. The next general elections are in 2015 and for them to proceed smoothly without a threat of a return to military rule, many are urging a go-softly approach.
Myanmar has been nominally under civilian rule for the past two years, but the government officials leading the transition to democracy today are largely the former apparatchiks of the military governments that ruled the country for five decades.
Thiha Saw, a leading journalist, said this is the critical distinction between Myanmar and other societies going through convulsive transformations.
“This is not a bottom-up revolution,” he said. “It’s a top-down transformation.”