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Myanmar’s Bad Blood

Following the country’s landmark election, can former political prisoners make nice with their military oppressors?

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

I met U Ba Myo Thein at 3:45 pm on election day, 15 minutes before polls closed in Myanmar’s first relatively free and fair election in over two decades. He was distracted. Gulping coffee, Thein answered questions posed through a translator, while checking one of his cell phones for updates from his campaign manager and using another phone to gab enthusiastically to a stream of well-wishers. At that moment, Thein seemed like any other well-practiced politician. It was hard to imagine that only five years earlier he had been in the 20th year of a jail sentence at Thayet prison, one of the Burmese military regime’s most brutal and notorious detention centers for political prisoners. 

There is no better sign of the momentousness of Myanmar’s elections earlier this month than that so many former political prisoners—experts put their number at around 80—won election and will now be entering parliament. When military rule was established in 1962, Myanmar’s generals quickly established a gulag of massive, dungeon-like prisons throughout the country, which were used to incarcerate anyone accused of challenging the regime. The former prisoners I met spoke about the misery of the food rations, the utter lack of reading materials, the cruelty of the wardens, the extremely cramped conditions, and the cell-mates who went mad.

Former political prisoners were put in prison for reasons ranging from the very petty to the more substantial. Tint Lwin, who won a seat on Yangon’s regional parliament this election, was stripped of his job at a local bank and locked away for five years for distributing a white paper on the country’s economic policy that was deemed too critical by the regime. U Ba Myo Thein, meanwhile, had been arrested in 1990 for helping to coordinate between student dissidents and ethnic rebels who were battling the Burmese military in far-off provinces. Both candidates ran as candidates for the National League of Democracy (NLD), the party led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which seeks to limit the military’s role in governance and which earned a landslide victory this election.

The NLD—from top to bottom—is an organization stacked with former political prisoners. Suu Kyi herself served 15 years under military-imposed house arrest. When her British husband acquired a terminal form of cancer, and requested to visit his wife once before he died, the military authorities rejected the request.

The question going forward is whether these former political prisoners can work effectively with the military men who imprisoned them for so many years. The elections on November 8 marked a major advance for Burmese democracy, but elected representatives will nonetheless be participating in a national government that gives significant power to the military. The Burmese constitution guarantees that the military automatically receives 25 percent of seats in parliament, and that the military will continue to control three of the country’s most powerful government bureaucracies: the military, border affairs, and internal affairs.

The Burmese military will also continue to operate massive conglomerates, which it uses to extract and sell the country’s mineral and oil wealth for its own benefit. A recently released report by Global Witness found that corporations linked to military families controlled much of the up to $31 billion worth of jade mined in Myanmar in 2014, and that money from jade almost completely bypassed the public treasury.

Given the power that Myanmar’s military continues to wield, there is consensus—among leading generals, Suu Kyi, John Kerry—that, if these elections are going to lead to consolidated democracy, Myanmar’s new civilian leaders will have to work in close cooperation with the country’s reigning generals to achieve further democratic reforms. Under the current government system, civilians don’t have the power to force anything on their own.

As a result, former political prisoners who are entering parliament have no choice but to cooperate closely and constructively with their former oppressors, without receiving any recompense or apology. “Our situation is an abnormal situation,” explained Tint Lwin, the candidate for regional parliament. “In this situation we have to accept [the military’s role].” He said that he was concerned that the military would dominate governance, but that running for parliament was the best available option for resisting continued military rule.

Suu Kyi has made clear that it’s not on her agenda to open up investigations into human rights abuses committed by the military junta. During the last relatively free and fair election in 1990, the NLD won in a landslide. In the aftermath of the election, some NLD leaders promised to confront the military over its crimes. This is considered one of the reasons the military annulled the election results and refused to hand over power to civilians. So this time around the NLD is determined to prioritize smooth relations with the generals over resolving the issue of human rights abuses, both past and present. “We have to change gradually,” explained Kyaw Wunna, a former political prisoner who served as Tint Lwin’s campaign manager. 

Some international observers worry that Suu Kyi’s reluctance to address those abuses will have long-term consequences for Myanmar. “The danger of ignoring past human rights abuses to appease today’s political calculations is that the rights abusers remember and believe that they can commit rights violations again in the future, in some sort of special case or instance that they themselves define,” wrote Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, in an email. “Considering that many of these abusers are members of the military or other security personnel, this is hardly the message the NLD wants to be sending now.”

At the same time, the skepticism goes in the other direction too. According to Chris Tun, a Burmese management consultant who provides policy advice to numerous stakeholders in the country, pro-military members of government worry that former political prisoners are not ready to govern. “Sometimes the government tries to say, ‘These guys, they’re nothing, they have no capacity,’” Tun said. But for Tun that’s an unfair charge. “I challenge this government, look, you go to the jail for 20 years—what capacity can you build?”

Given the potential for mutual contempt between former political prisoners and the military, it is notable that, since the election, prominent generals as well as Suu Kyi have sounded conciliatory notes. Suu Kyi immediately requested meetings with generals after it was clear her party was headed to victory, and Ye Htut, the country’s information minister, assured the public, “In the post-election period, the country’s leaders will discuss maintaining peace and stability of the country.”

In fact, since the transition to nominal civilian rule in 2011, there have been high levels of cooperation between former political prisoners and the military, said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He cited former political prisoners and insurgent fighters who have worked with Burmese NGOs and military representatives to negotiate ceasefire agreements. “We have already seen a high level of cooperation between former enemies in Myanmar over the last five years, which I think gets lost in a lot of the narratives about this election,” Connelly wrote to me.

Bo Kyi, secretary of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners of Burma, agreed that cooperation was necessary, but said that it was too early to know whether it would be achieved. He said a lot depended on an upcoming meeting between Suu Kyi and top generals. “It’s difficult to predict,” he said. “If we can create a civilian-military relationship that’s good for the future.”