Wednesday, July 1, 2009

One-way Street

The Irrawaddy News
JULY, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.4

Pro-democracy activists are not the only ones who have been a part of the tortuous history of Insein Prison and Burma’s most notorious court

BURMESE lawyers call it “the one-way street,” but it is officially known as the “special court” at Insein Prison.

The accused who end up here know that their fate is sealed before they even enter a plea. The verdict is preordained, and the sentence is invariably a long stretch in Insein—Burma’s most dreaded prison—or worse.

Whatever the charge, there is never any doubt about the true nature of the offense. The allegations against the accused may be real or imagined, deadly serious or utterly ridiculous, but the “crime” is always the same: threatening the country’s despotic rulers’ hold on power.

This has been the end of the road for many of Burma’s most prominent political prisoners, as well as countless others who have fallen afoul of the powers that be. Since the Buddhist monk-led uprising of September 2007 alone, hundreds of dissidents have been legally processed here and dispatched with ruthless efficiency to the Burmese gulag.

But pro-democracy activists are not the only ones who have been robbed of long years of their lives by this kangaroo court. Often, those who come here to face summary justice are former colleagues or close associates of Burma’s military masters. When the mighty fall from grace, this is usually where they land.

Here we present a few of the better known cases of doomed defendants who have passed through the special court after losing the confidence of their supreme leader.

Ohn Kyaw Myint, the Would-be Assassin

In 1976, Capt Ohn Kyaw Myint, a personal staff officer of the then-commander in chief of the armed forces, Gen Kyaw Htin, was arrested along with a group of army officers for plotting to assassinate Gen Ne Win and other state leaders.

Accused of seeking to overthrow the Ne Win regime because they believed that the dictator’s “Burmese Way to Socialism” was leading the country to ruin, the defendants were taken before the special court at Insein Prison.

In a rare departure from its normally secretive approach to dispensing justice, the court permitted crowds of spectators to witness the proceedings. The state-run media also provided extensive coverage to a nation captivated by the courtroom drama.

The trial went on for nearly a year before it reached its inevitable conclusion: Ohn Kyaw Myint was sentenced to death by hanging.

Another prominent figure who was tried in connection with the case was Gen Tin Oo, a former commander in chief of the armed forces. He was found guilty of treason for withholding information about the coup plan and sentenced to seven years hard labor.

Two decades later, Tin Oo went on to become the vice chairman of the National League for Democracy. He is currently under house arrest for allegedly threatening state stability.

Lawyers at Capt Ohn Kyaw Myint’s trial in Insein court.

Despite the harsh sentences handed down to those deemed disloyal to Ne Win, efforts to unseat him continued. In 1978, three cadres of his Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP)—Than Sein, Tun Linn and Kyaw Zaw—secretly conspired to vote Ne Win out of power at the Third Party Congress.

The rebel cadres were purged and were subsequently accused of misappropriating party funds. They were tried by the special court and given long prison sentences.

‘MI’ Tin Oo, the Aggressive Heir Apparent

In 1983, Brig-Gen Tin Oo, the powerful director of the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) and a member of the BSPP central executive committee, was tried by the special court on charges of misappropriating NIB funds.

The CIA-trained military intelligence chief—better known as “MI” Tin Oo—was generally regarded as Ne Win’s right-hand man. He had uncovered several assassination attempts against the Burmese dictator and used extensive dossiers on leading members of the BSPP government to expose rivals plotting palace coups.

Also known as “No 1 and a Half” because of his status as the likely successor to the aging Ne Win, Tin Oo was often at loggerheads with senior army generals, creating an atmosphere of tension and suspicion among the top ranks of the military—the real power brokers in the BSPP scheme of things.

But it was Ne Win’s fears for his own position that eventually prompted him to take action to neutralize Tin Oo, who had been aggressively consolidating his personal power base.

The trial at the Insein special court was not open. Tin Oo reportedly sent a long letter of appeal to Ne Win, but it was ignored. He received five concurrent life sentences for his alleged crimes, but was released from Insein Prison in 1988 after Ne Win was forced from power by nationwide pro-democracy protests.

Aung Gyi, the Letter-writing Critic

Brig-Gen Aung Gyi was No 2 in the Revolutionary Council, the military junta that ruled Burma for the first 12 years of Ne Win’s reign. However, Aung Gyi’s tenure was short-lived: within a year of the 1962 coup that installed Ne Win in power, his lieutenant was forced to resign for openly criticizing the new regime’s economic policies.

But the retired general remained loyal to the army and maintained his connection with “the Old Man.” This did not change until the late 1980s, when Aung Gyi wrote a series of highly publicized open letters to Ne Win urging him to reform the economy, which after more than two decades of mismanagement was on the verge of collapse.

These letters became virtual manifestos for the emerging pro-democracy movement, which came to a head in August 1988. After the bloody coup that crushed massive demonstrations around the country the following month, Aung Gyi became one of the founders of the National League for Democracy. However, he soon fell out with other leaders and set up his own party.

After doing poorly in the 1990 election, Aung Gyi ended his brief foray into party politics and returned to his business of running a popular chain of bakeries. In 1993, however, his political past caught up with him, and he was brought before the special court, ostensibly for failing to pay a bill for eggs.

He was sentenced to six months in Insein Prison, while his wife received a stiffer sentence for allegedly smuggling goods into the country from Thailand—a victim of the new regime’s “open economy.”

Aung Gyi was one of the few people to attend Ne Win’s funeral in 2002. Although he praised the late dictator for his role in liberating the country from British rule, he added: “Ne Win betrayed the country. He raped democracy in Burma by staging a coup. He died an inglorious death. It was a sad and tragic ending.”

Sandar Win and Family, the Clan of Conspirators

Just nine months before Ne Win’s death in December 2002, the former dictator and his closest family members received sentences in the special court ranging from house arrest to the death penalty for allegedly plotting to split the armed forces and overthrow the ruling regime.

In early 2002, Ne Win’s son-in-law Aye Zaw Win and his three sons were arrested for conspiring to return the dying man to power to pave the way for a succession that would have made the family of his favorite daughter, Sandar Win, the most powerful in Burma.

In the end, however, Aye Zaw Win and his sons were sentenced to death for their leading role in the sensational plot, while Ne Win and his daughter were placed under house arrest. Sandar Win was released earlier this year after serving her full six-year sentence.

Several high-ranking officers were also implicated in the case and purged. In all, more than 100 people, including four senior officials and an astrologer employed by the grandsons, were detained and interrogated in connection with the case.

The four chief defendants were accused of planning to kidnap the regime’s leaders and seize state power. During the carefully staged trial, the prosecution claimed that the conspirators had used “black magic” in their bid for power.

Analysts and diplomats expressed doubts about the charges, saying the case probably reflected a desire by the regime to discredit the once powerful Ne Win clan.

Aye Zaw Win and his sons remain on death row at Insein Prison, where they reportedly enjoy special treatment and are said to be involved in running a gambling ring. The current regime is not expected to carry out the execution order against them because it has not administered capital punishment since seizing power in 1988.

Khin Nyunt, the Spying Prime Minister

Gen Khin Nyunt was serving as Burma’s prime minister when he was arrested in 2004 for insubordination and corruption. But for most of his career, he was better known as the regime’s spy chief and the mastermind behind efforts to fabricate charges against pro-democracy activists, including student leader Min Ko Naing, Shan leader Hkun Tun Oo and Burma’s longest-serving political prisoner, Win Tin.

The spy master received a suspended prison sentence and was placed under house arrest. (Photo: Reuters)

The 89-year-old Win Tin, who was released last year after serving 19 years in Insein Prison, was originally sentenced by the special court in July 1989 to three years for harboring an “offender for whom a warrant had been issued”—a charge concocted by Khin Nyunt. His sentence was repeatedly extended during his incarceration for a variety of offences linked to his opposition activities.

Khin Nyunt’s downfall was due to his status as the head of one of the two major factions in the ruling junta. Despite its key role in keeping the junta in power for the first decade and a half of its existence, by 2004 the intelligence faction of the regime, headed by Khin Nyunt, had become a threat to the infantry faction led by Than Shwe. After years of tensions, the Than Shwe clique moved to take Khin Nyunt out of play once and for all.

Khin Nyunt appeared only briefly before the court to hear the verdict against him: a 44-year suspended prison sentence. He is currently confined to his home, where he lives with his wife and three children. Some of his lieutenants did not get off as lightly, with one receiving a prison sentence of 114 years.

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