Some former political prisoners suggest there is an unspoken social contract in Myanmar today, which recognizes that the military elite might be unwilling to continue to let go of power if they fear retribution.
“We can forgive them if they transform the country from military rule to democracy,” said Tin Aung, 71, who spent 23 years in prison for student activism and affiliation with the communist movement.
Despite losing a friend who he believes died from torture soon after being arrested, he said he was against seeking retribution; he said that as a Buddhist, he harbored no ill will toward his former captors.
As part of the new deal for the country, he said, the government should “give up their control over the economy.”
However, that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Myanmar’s economy is still largely dominated by a group of businesspeople who worked alongside the military government and who are known collectively in the country as the “cronies.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, who recently announced that she would like to run for president, has welcomed their participation in the new Myanmar and has even accepted donations from them for charities that her party runs.
“I have no compunctions about that,” she said last week. “I think it’s better that they use their money in that way rather than, for example, buying another private jet or something like that.”
Still, there are some in Myanmar who believe it is only a matter of time before more people call for justice or retribution, especially those who are likely to lose out in the country’s new market economy.
Thiha Saw, who is introducing the first privately owned English-language daily newspaper in Myanmar in decades, said that ethnic minorities who were involved in armed conflict with the Burmese army, and who suffered widespread abuses, are unlikely to stay silent about the past.
“They were raped, killed, looted and robbed,” Thiha Saw said. “Will they just say: ‘What is done is done’? I don’t think so.”
Aung Tun, a former student activist who spent 17 years as a political prisoner, said there are likely to be more calls for justice as disappointment grows among those who are not benefiting from the country’s changes.
Aung Tun has already made his own efforts to at least begin a move toward examining the past. Last year, he sent a letter to 15 former members of the junta, including Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt, demanding an apology and threatening legal action. He has yet to receive any formal replies. (The country’s constitution, drawn up by the generals, offers impunity for the junta, banning any “proceeding” against former officials of the military government “in respect of any act done in the execution of their respective duties.”)
Khin Nyunt admitted to mistakes — “to err is human,” he said — but he was just doing “what I was ordered to do.”
During the course of two interviews, Khin Nyunt, 74, made frequent references to Buddhism and spirituality.
“I am not an ordinary, traditional Buddhist,” he said. “I am a genuine devotee of Buddhism.”
As he spoke in his compound filled with citrus and mango trees, there were more employees than customers in the new cafe. The adjacent art gallery features the type of paintings that fill tourist shops around Yangon: portraits of Buddhist monks or villagers; still lifes of tropical fruit; landscapes showing the colorful fields of the Shan Plateau in the northeast.