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Southeast Asia


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Southeast Asia


The Burma Purge of 2004

27 May 2005

Rick’s Cafe Americain, 1942. Captain Renault blows a loud blast on his whistle. 

RENAULT: Clear the room at once!
Rick comes up to Renault.
RICK: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
RENAULT: I am shocked - shocked! - to find that gambling is going on in here!
CROUPIER: Your winnings, sir.
RENAULT: Oh. Thankyou very much.
- ‘Casablanca’
George Orwell, in his Burma Days, did much to capture the corrupt Burmese official. Orwell’s Ko Po Kyin is a bit archetypal. Certainly echoes of him may be found in Burma’s ruling junta.
Ko Po Kyin ruins the lives of those who get in his way, allows evildoers to go unpunished if they suit his purposes: then tips the cosmic scales back in his favour by generous endowments to pagodas. A little like junta “Number 1” General Than Shwe - who is thesedays getting rather porky - he is “swollen with the bodies of his enemies”.
Burma’s Senior General put on a few more pounds, metaphorically speaking, last October, with the coup which dispatched Military Intelligence chief and Prime Minister Khin Nyunt.
Trials have been underway since late last year of Khin Nyunt’s Military Intelligence men - both those working in the agency, and those who had penetrated other departments such as Police, Immigration, Customs and the diplomatic corps. There have probably been over 300 trials to date, a Rangoon journalist says, most of them revolving around the pervasive, long-standing “corruption” in MI - which the regime has suddenly become   aware of. Those MI people of the rank of sergeant and below have generally been dismissed from their posts but not charged.
The more senior MI officers have not been so lucky. The minimum sentence handed down to date has been ten years, and the maximum life imprisonment. Colonel Hla Min - the regime mouthpiece once seen on CNN and other outlets - was charged with the illegal possession of a pistol (an apparent “cleanskin”, the regime was unable to get him on anything else), and given ten years. A senior Khin Nyunt aide was given 135 years, whilst the chief MI officer on the China border received over 100 years. The Rangoon journalist says a witness in one of the trials told him the charge sheets for the accused were two feet high. Another case concerned Bagan Cybertech, of which Khin Nyunt’s son was CEO. The company’s procurement officer allegedly brought goods into Burma without paying duty. He was convicted on 300 counts, and sentenced to five years on each - a total sentence of 1500 years.
According to the journalist, Khin Nyunt’s business cronies have largely got off with giving evidence of corruption in MI - that is, they have mostly been left alone themselves. However a former friend and business partner of Khin Nyunt disputes this, claiming that many - perhaps the majority - of those once in business with the former Prime Minister have been rounded up and jailed. The friend of Khin Nyunt’s also claims that the sons of the ex-MI chief’s senior officers have been expelled from the military colleges at Maymyo.
The MI trials are being conducted inside Rangoon’s Insein Prison, where one large room has been curtained off to form about 30 “tribunals”. “You can hear everything that’s going on around you,” one case witness told the Rangoon journalist.
The realisation has now set in that the surreal sentences are going to look bizarre in the eyes of the world, and future sentences are likely to be less draconian.
Some of the accused are becoming a little deranged, according to insider accounts. “Never in their lives,” says the Rangoon journalist, “did these MI people imagine they’d suffer such a drastic fall. For over twenty years they’d controlled every aspect of life in Burma.”
Khin Nyunt himself is still under house arrest, in his heavily guarded compound/home in the Rangoon suburb of Mayangone. He is awaiting trial on “insubordination” charges - in reality a rap of “conspiracy against the leadership”, according to the journalist. Khin Nyunt now faces the kind of future he visited on many others.
Most MI people are hoping for a general amnesty from “Number One” - Senior General Than Shwe - after they have served part of their sentences.
There may be downsides to this thoroughgoing purge, the journalist says. “It is very traumatic for the country. Whatever you say about them, some of these MI people were highly educated - others had been trained by the CIA and Mossad - and in their heyday they formed the main thinktank for Burma’s future economic development. So when MI was uprooted, many vacuums were created. These are now being filled by much more ignorant people. That’s bad for the country - though the opposition is happy.
“Also, there is now a great apprehension through the military. Officers think, ‘Maybe this could happen to me.’ No-one knows where this will end. Diplomats are being recalled, plus the Ambassadors to Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. They were all MI people.”
The journalist also provided further detail as to the mysterious death of Lt-Col Bo Win Tun, the personal assistant to armed forces chief General Maung Aye, in January. The rumour mill had it that Bo Win Tun was killed in a dramatic shoot-out between rival forces within the junta. An alternative story - which the Rangoon journalist now believes to be the true one - was that Khin Nyunt’s men had clandestinely videoed Bo Win Tun’s famously flirtatious wife having sex with another man. The video was shown to the hapless Lieutenant-Colonel in his office, in the presence of his bosses. Notwithstanding MI’s subsequent demise, a much-humiliated Bo Win Tun eventually shot himself - a single bullet fired from under his chin - in that same office.
The journalist says that this version of Bo Win Tun’s death has now come to be accepted in Rangoon. Having spoken to a person involved in developing the video, he accepts it too. The video is now supposed to be on sale around Rangoon - “though I haven’t seen it,” he adds.
Despite such diversions, MI’s fall hasn’t altered life much for  ordinary Burmese. In Mandalay Division, Par Par Lay of the Moustache Brothers has more or less recovered from a sentence of five and a half years’ hard labour for telling a joke, and Burma’s most famous comedy troupe is pulling in tourists. The massive new highway project between Mandalay and Maymyo is thronged with thousands of workers toiling amid machinery and piles of earth and lime. The highway is, the signs shamelessly proclaim, being constructed largely by Asia World, a company which belongs to the son of drug lord Lo Hsing Han. A smaller section of the project has been given to the Hong Pang Group, which - along with subsidiaries such as Hong Pang Highway Construction Ltd, are named in the February indictment handed down by the US Justice Department against eight leaders of the United Wa State Army. The Hong Pang companies are believed to be money-laundering fronts for the Was’ heroin and methamphetamine-trafficking profits.
Further north, Maymyo itself is home to 15 Russian nuclear technicians, according to a seemingly well-informed local. Or 15 Russian language teachers, according to the Russians themselves, when you approach them in Maymyo’s Day and Night Cafe - where they gather each evening at 5 - and ask them what they’re up to. Either way, the 15 teach at Maymyo’s Defiance military technology institute, and are accommodated alongside generals and their families in a luxury “Defence Services Guest House” on Maymyo’s leafy Kandawgi Road.
Meanwhile, in northern Shan State you hear many tales of the forced relocation of villages; and of Burmese army soldiers guarding poppy fields. In Hsipaw on February 22, police beat a young offender to death in the middle of one of the town’s main intersections. Late at night, locals say, trucks rumble through town carrying heroin to Mandalay and beyond.
At the edge of the Irrawaddy, just west of the Ava Bridge, you can see a slave labour gang, including children, carrying large baskets of gravel off barges under military supervision.
Down in Rangoon, technicians in a “secret nuclear project”, whose nature they will not divulge, handle uranium with their bare hands - a cloth face mask the only protection provided by their government. Barbed wire barricades block Merchant Street near some of the government centres. Aung San Suu Kyi - more symbolically visible the longer she remains physically invisible - is shut away in her home with two maids, her only visitor her physician. “She is very disciplined,” says a friend. “I’d be climbing the walls, but she keeps things under control through meditation.” “She was born for the job she is now doing,” says another friend.
On the streets, not one citizen has a good word to say about the ruling junta. So far as the visitor can tell, virtually the entire population of Burma is waiting for it to succumb to the evolutions of the modern world.
But at government level, the “vacuums” spoken of by the Rangoon journalist are steadily being filled. Military Affairs Security, along with the police’s Special Investigations Department - 1100 staff before October; 2600 now - are recruiting thousands of new officers to fill the shoes of Khin Nyunt and his men. As the totalitarian tide goes out around the world, Burma remains stranded on the shoreline.

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