For the last three weeks, the Voice of America Burmese Service has run an interview series that has attracted many interested listeners.
The cause of their interest has been a former officer of Myanmar’s disbanded Defense Services Intelligence agency, Major Aung Lin Htut. In 2005 while Aung Lin Htut was working as deputy chief in the Washington D.C. embassy he sought and was granted asylum in the United States. According to the New Light of Myanmar, the major defected with his family because his wife had been “summonsed to appear before a court in connection with settlement of (a) bad debt for the lease of a building in a commercial case”. But his sudden departure also followed the arrest of his former boss, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, and dismantling of the intelligence service apparatus.
The major told VOA that he had decided to speak out in response to the handling of Cyclone Nargis. He echoed the statements of various exiled parties and overseas groups that Senior General Than Shwe is paranoid about being blamed for all sorts of human rights abuses. But whereas the charges often leveled against the senior general rest on conjecture rather than fact, those of Aung Lin Htut cannot be so readily discounted.
In the first part of the interview, broadcast on May 25, Aung Lin Htut described the killing of 81 people on an island near the southern tip of Myanmar. (A pretty good translation of this part is here.) He said that he was sent to Christie Island with a group of officers and their men in May 1998 to cordon it off for military use. They found 59 people on it, including a three-year-old girl and a woman who had recently given birth. The people were eking out a living by cutting and selling wood and bamboo.
Aung Lin Htut said that he expected that the island’s inhabitants would be sent to Kawthaung and then charged or released. But instead the order came just to “clean things up”, meaning, to kill the lot. The officers talked things over and decided not to carry it out immediately. They assumed that it had come from the army commander, General Maung Aye, and that he may have been drunk at the time. They waited until the next morning and double-checked. Then they found out that it was not from “Father Aye” but from “Great Father”, Than Shwe. There was nothing left to discuss.
Nor was this the end of it. A day or two after, a boat from neighbouring Thailand with a license to fish in the western part of the Bay of Bengal had the bad luck to pass close by the island. It was intercepted, the major said, and the 22 fishermen on board were also executed, their remains destroyed and the boat sunk.
(Although the interview has attracted some reporting in the English media, there doesn’t seem to have been any comment so far from Thailand about this claim. However, Aung Lin Htut seems to have enough details on what happened, the keeping of them being what he was trained and employed to do, that if a boat and crew went missing at that time it could easily be established whether or not his account is accurate.)
Aung Lin Htut added that such killings were common in the outlying areas during the 1990s, lending credence to the many reports detailing abuse in civil war and post-civil war zones during the last two decades. He told VOA that the code for an order to kill everyone found in a clearance area was that they were not to leave even a “quarter viss”, i.e. 14.4 ounces, referring to the unborn child in the womb.
The second part of the interview coincided with the fifth anniversary of the attack on a convoy carrying Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at Depayin in Upper Myanmar. At that time, Major Aung Lin Htut was deputed to the ambassador in the U.S. He said that the State Department called to confirm reports it had received about the attack. The embassy had heard nothing. So he contacted Yangon to find out what had happened.
What he pieced together was that neither his “father”, Khin Nyunt, nor Father Aye was privy to the plan, which was prepared through the mass Union Solidarity Development Association, under guidance of its then secretary, U Aung Thaung, now the Minister for Industry No. 1. When the two generals who had been kept in the dark found out about it through sources in Mandalay they went to Great Father. Aung Lin Htut said to VOA that as far as he knows, Khin Nyunt put it to Than Shwe that if the attack occurred it would make a mess of a lot of things, both at home and abroad. The Great Father’s response was coarse and abrupt, “Yeah, so what? I ordered it.”
Aung Lin Htut also reiterated a view he had offered earlier that the objective of the Depayin attack was to kill Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Survivors who fled to Thailand and elsewhere have said that the assault was savage. The numbers of dead to this day are unknown: VOA noted that the official figure is five, whereas some unofficial tallies run to over one hundred. However, Aung San Suu Kyi survived. Aung Lin Htut puts it down to good luck and that her car was at the end of the convoy. But this alone might not have been enough. He said that as far as he knows, her vehicle fled to a nearby police station to report the incident, and it was the regular officers there who during the same night escorted her to Meiktila. (Some people have speculated that because military intelligence was unable to stop the attack it helped in planning her escape, but this did not come up in the interview.) Aung Lin Htut gathered this news through contacts, not from any official correspondence to the embassy, which was never given “the green light” to discuss the matter with the U.S. government.
In the third part, broadcast last Sunday, Major Aung Lin Htut reflected on these events in light of Cyclone Nargis. He said that Great Father, who surfs the Internet (perhaps New Mandala too) and contrary to popular belief does keep up to date with global news and events, is acutely aware of the inglorious ends that came to Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot, and is determined that nothing will happen to him. It is for this reason that any moves for large-scale involvement by outside agencies in Myanmar, especially from the United Nations or the West, are simply refused.
But does Than Shwe really have anything to worry about? The onus to prove crimes against humanity under international law is notoriously high. Prosecutors must establish first that the necessary criteria have been met for charges to be laid at all and then that there is enough evidence to link the accused to the offences. Those found guilty of atrocities in international courts have typically had some kind of personal involvement in killings, rapes and torture, or have publicly incited others. Jean Kambanda, the interim prime minister during the genocide in Rwanda, held cabinet meetings in which killings were openly discussed, issued a directive to encourage the Interahamwe, ordered the setting up of roadblocks used to search for victims, and backed the radio station inciting the massacres as well as visited areas of bloodshed and congratulated murderers on their work. He pleaded guilty.
Nobody in Naypyidaw has got up to any such things. On the contrary, Aung Lin Htut acknowledged that the senior officers have been scrupulous in not leaving evidence behind to link them to anything, as much out of distrust of one another as of anyone else. So even if bones can still be found in the sand on Christie Island and the major’s secret photos of the victims can be recovered from his old filing cabinet or elsewhere, there remains the problem of showing that the killings really followed Great Father’s order.
It may be a small victory of sorts for international law if Than Shwe really is staying up at night contemplating the life and times of Slobodan Milosevic, albeit a Pyrrhic one for the cyclone victims denied aid as a consequence, but perhaps if he ever comes to a sticky end it will be more like that of Ferdinand Marcos or Soeharto. What chased them to their last days were not so much the ghosts of their innumerable victims as the ghosts of their immensely corrupt dealings. Whereas General Ne Win was careful to keep his wealth behind somewhat closed doors, and his subordinates lived relatively modest lives, the new Great Father and his hangers-on have demonstrably luxurious tastes. Conspicuous displays of excess are now as much a part of Myanmar as is pervasive extreme poverty. It is perhaps in this that the evidence for any future indictment may lie. It is also perhaps where the greatest interest is located: six months from now the number of searches on New Mandala for “Thandar Shwe” will still vastly outnumber those for “Aung Lin Htut” or “Christie Island”. Maybe Than Shwe should be concerned more about what’s in his daughter’s wardrobe than what some foreigners may one day come across by accident on an outlying island. But then again, Major Aung Lin Htut must have a lot more stories that he’s not telling VOA.