Aung San Suu Kyi’s senior staffer U Win Htein on how and why the Burmese government is now reforming, the grounds for that change, and the National League for Democracy’s role in the transformation.
Photograph by Amnesty International.
On an unexceptional street in Rangoon, Burma, sidled between two furniture stores is a rundown soot-stained cement building. Inside, under dimly flickering florescent lights, dozens of people rush around filing papers and holding meetings. This is the headquarters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy or NLD. Here, Aung San Suu Kyi works with her staff, most of which, like her, are former political prisoners. Her right-hand man, senior staffer and head of the NLD headquarters is U Win Htein, a stout man with a warm disposition and a hearty laugh.
Htein began working for Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 when she first emerged as a national icon forming the NLD during the bloody ’88 student uprisings. A former army captain and businessman, Htein joined the party as Aung San Suu Kyi’s military and security advisor. Consequently, like her, Htein was repeatedly imprisoned by Burma’s military junta. He was first detained with Aung San Suu Kyi in 1989, the day after she held a Martyr’s Day ceremony at her father’s grave.
Since 1989, Htein spent a total of 20 years and two months as a political prisoner. While incarcerated, he was often deprived of water and food, hooded and handcuffed and at one point forced to stay in a 14 by 12-foot cell for two years and eight months. The conditions in prison were terrible. “We went through not only mental torture but physical torture,” he said. He was freed July 15, 2010. Four months later, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and Burma has been rapidly changing ever since.
While it was once illegal to gather in groups larger than five or to display an image of Aung San Suu Kyi, today both are now commonplace. Posters and t-shirts of Aung San Suu Kyi are sold in markets and on street corners across Rangoon. “They are gradually releasing their grip on us,” said Htein of the military junta. In the last three months, hundreds of political prisoners were freed, the NLD registered as a political party announcing it will participate in the 2012 by-election, parliament passed a bill allowing peaceful protests, a massive Chinese dam project was canceled and newspapers can now publish photos and information about the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, which just six months ago was unthinkable.
Still, the country has a long way to go, said Htein. Human rights abuses against ethnic minorities are still reported daily, hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail and poverty, corruption and censorship are rampant. The question of the government’s sincerity is also at play. Although there are skeptics, Htein said he trusts the judgment of Aung San Suu Kyi and her belief that dialog with the regime is the best route toward democracy. “We are expecting a lot of heated arguments,” he said. “But I’m all for her.”
[F]rom 2003 to 2010, all the NLD party members in each and every township were rounded up. The majority was put in prison and some were put in police jails and army camps.
This week, Hilary Clinton will be the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Burma in over 50 years. When President Barack Obama announced the secretary’s visit, he said, “After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress over these last few weeks,” and if Burma continues to reform, the U.S. would consider forging a relationship with the country. Clinton is scheduled to meet with leaders from both the government and the NLD, along with civil society and ethnic minority leaders.
A couple of weeks before news broke that Clinton would visit Burma, I sat down with Htein in the NLD headquarters. Now 70-years-old, wearing a white short sleeve shirt tucked into a traditional maroon-colored longyi, Htein told me about his time in prison, the break-neck speed at which his country is changing and the possibility for democracy.
(This interview has been condensed, reorganized and edited.)
—Dara Kerr for Guernica
Guernica: After nearly 50 years of military rule, what type of change is happening in Burma now?
U Win Htein: The government is gradually releasing its grip on us. The most significant thing is that it canceled the dam project in the Irrawaddy River. This was a 3.5 billion dollar project and it was canceled. The other thing is that it will amend the constitution [to allow the NLD to register as an official political party]. Another point is that all political prisoners can now be regarded as legal NLD party members. Before, all prisoners from our party had to be kicked out of the party if they were put in jail. Now, the government changed that so all prisoners can remain party members. Their attitude is changing.
Guernica: In October, the government released thousands of prisoners including over 200 political prisoners. How many political prisoners in are still in prison?
U Win Htein: Still nearly 1000. Since the very beginning, in 1989, tens of thousands were put in prison.
Guernica: Were you one of these people put in prison in 1989?
U Win Htein: Yes, I’ve been in prison four times. The total time is 20 years and two months. The last time I was there for 14 years and two months, from 1996 to last year, 2010.
Guernica: What were the conditions like when you were in prison?
U Win Htein: Until 2000, it was very bad. We went through not only mental torture but physical torture. Beating. And, we were not allowed to speak to each other. We were not allowed to share our food. Many of us had our families prepare and bring us food. But many families could not afford to bring food because they were poor, so we had to share. But the guards didn’t allow this, so we had to get it through by illegal ways. If they found out, we would be dead.
Guernica: How many members does the NLD have?
U Win Htein: Until the 1990 election, our party members were around four million, but now it is greatly reduced. You heard about the episode in 2003, where trucks surrounded Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy and beat her? In that incident, those who were beaten were taken and put in jail; those who surrounded her and beat her and her followers were set free. So, from 2003 to 2010, all the NLD party members in each and every township were rounded up. The majority was put in prison and some were put in police jails and army camps.
Guernica: Why do you think the government did this?
U Win Htein: They just wanted to dominate the political situation. Each and every county suffered and our headquarters were raided and documents were confiscated. Since then, our party was stopped. Only after her release last year, our party was revived and we are starting to organize. We were not involved in the previous election because we did not think it would be free and fair.
Guernica: Aung San Suu Kyi held a closed door meeting with the president of Burma, Thein Sein, on August 19. It seems like a lot of the change that is happening is a result of that meeting. What do you think they discussed?
U Win Htein: According to the actions the president has taken, we see some measures were taken into account. The canceling of the dam project, the partial amnesty and the constitutional amendmentsÔwe consider this progress. But there are still some people who are not happy about the present situation, including some local people and some in leadership. We are expecting a lot of heated arguments.
Guernica: Why do you think the government set Aung San Suu Kyi free last November?
U Win Htein: She was released one week after the election; they released her only after their objective was realized. In 1990, we won the election by a landslide. [When the military refused to hand over power] there was a heated argument in the United Nations and in the international arena; then, suddenly, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and Iraq and Kuwait became headline news and our cause was forgotten. In 2003, the government troops surrounded her convoy and beat her and she narrowly escaped. It was a very bad incident and after that no one in the international community accepted the Burmese government. Then, the U.S. invaded Iraq again and internationally our cause became second or third rate at best. In 2007, the monks rose up in the Saffron Revolution, only then did the government begin to realize that they could not go on as it was.
Guernica: A bill that allows peaceful protests is passing through parliament right now, what do you think about it?
U Win Htein: It’s a new development. Two or three weeks ago there were some incidents, some of the fringe elements from our group went to the pagoda and shouted and marched along the street. Local police officers showed up and talked to them and diffused their movement. In principle, we didn’t like the police action but what the government did was quite all right. There were no soldiers and no armed guards, only the police officers. This was according to the new law allowing peaceful demonstration.
My objective is that in the future there aren’t any political prisoners in our jails. It is my duty to let other people know about our struggle.
Guernica: It looks like the bill might make it difficult to get permission to hold a peaceful protest?
U Win Htein: Of course. Quite frankly we didn’t expect much. But, before this, the subject was forbidden to everybody, especially in government.
Guernica: Are there other reasons why you think the government is changing?
U Win Htein: Democracy is not their objective. The most important thing is that they know they cannot go along alone—they cannot be reelected without Aung San Suu Kyi. They realize that they cannot achieve their objective without her because she is internationally recognized and internationally famous. With her, they can get a lot of assistance, which will help develop the country.
Guernica: Are you saying that the government’s objective is to continue having power?
U Win Htein: Yes.
Guernica: Even though the government is reforming, there are still major obstacles, how do you feel about moving forward?
U Win Htein: Now, we are cautiously optimistic. The U.S. and the E.U. put in policies for economic sanctions; these sanctions were prescribed due to human rights violations here. We would like for the international community to watch carefully for real progress, not only voice but also deeds. Only then can they decide truthfully.
Guernica: On the border, there are still reports of fighting between the Burmese army and the ethnic resistance groups; do you think this can be reconciled?
U Win Htein: There’s some talk there. A peace conference is being convened; all groups will be invited as well as Aung San Suu Kyi. The problem is that they don’t trust each other. Trust is the main element in establishing meaningful peace among the ethnic people and they trust Aung San Suu Kyi. They will have to announce a cease-fire. Only then they can find a political solution.
Guernica: What do you hope for the future of the NLD?
U Win Htein: We have to wait until 2015 when there will be another major election. We have to wait and see because we cannot underestimate the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s strength. We hope that we will win the majority of the vote. But [even if we win], there is another faction, which will skew our majority because 25 percent of parliament seats are required to be represented by the army. We have to deal with this process that concerns army representation. We must erase that.
Guernica: What do you hope for the future of Burma?
U Win Htein: My objective is that in the future there aren’t any political prisoners in our jails. It is my duty to let other people know about our struggle. One thing I want to stress is that although I was in prison—and I didn’t break any law I just struggled for politics—I don’t hold any grudges. I don’t want revenge on anybody. That’s how I stay cheerful, without any grudges on anybody. Some people are amazed that I am still cheerful after those years in prison. I tell them—although it’s an understatement—that’s part of the job, an occupational hazard.
Dara Kerr is a journalist based in Oakland. Prior to news writing, she worked in international affairs, focusing on Latin America. A graduate of New York University, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal.com, CBS News, and other publications.