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.”
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.
Khin Nyunt said he wanted to give space to “little-known” artists.
“I have no regrets,” he said, referring to his years in power. “I had no intention of doing harm to others. I believe that I did no violence, I did no injustice.”
These words, relayed to Aung Tun, the former political prisoner, were met with disbelief.
Aung Tun said he was beaten and deprived of food and sleep for days at a time after being detained by military intelligence officers who worked for Khin Nyunt’s spy agency. Among his alleged crimes: writing a book on the student protest movement. He said agents read the book’s acknowledgments and arrested those Aung Tun had thanked for help with his research.
As for the former spy chief’s new career as patron of the arts, Aung Tun’s reaction dripped with bitter sarcasm.
“I’m glad to hear he is at peace, but you cannot hide from history,” Aung Tun said. “The truth will find its place.”
Additional reporting by Wai Moe