David Scott Mathieson reviews Andrew Selth’s 2019 book on Myanmar’s notorious intelligence services.
In Rangoon’s Drug Elimination Museum, a sprawling hall of half-truths and hilarious fantasy, there are subtle clues to past power plays within the Defence Services, or Tatmadaw. In a section of the museum extolling the questionable commitments to drug eradication of the previous military regimes, displays of drug burnings and press conferences have full pages of the now-defunct Working People’s Daily. But one key figure in this record has been airbrushed from history, almost Soviet style. Except in clumsier form. A thin sheet of brown paper and tape covers several entire photographs. But the revisionists failed to conceal the photo captions underneath, including the name of the senior official depicted: General Khin Nyunt, the Chief of Military Intelligence (MI) and principal protector of some of Burma’s biggest drug dealers.
The scholar Andrew Selth’s latest book is an examination of one of Burma’s most powerful and feared figures of the past forty years. Since his purge in late 2004, Khin Nyunt has been eclipsed by history, ostracized from the military, largely unknown to the outside world since the ‘transition’ to democracy in 2011, and remembered only by his many victims. Selth’s study, Secrets and Power in Myanmar, is less a political biography of Khin Nyunt, and more a technical examination of the intelligence services, producing skilful navigation through the maze of the opaque world of intelligence gathering by one of the most esteemed chroniclers of modern Burma.
The book’s introduction outlines the fearsome place MI and other intelligence agencies, notably the Special Branch (SB) under the Ministry of Home Affairs, have played in generations of military rule starting from the Tatmadaw’s coup d’etat of March 1962, through nearly three decades of Socialist military rule, and the corresponding culture of a surveillance apparatus. Selth could have explored further the devastating impacts on the psyche of Burmese society during this period, but he wisely draws from Christina Fink’s 2001 book Living Silence to support his claims.
Chapter Two is an intricately drawn examination of the entire intelligence apparatus up until 2004, from MI and its blend of domestic political intelligence obsessions and its operational intelligence necessities as the Tatmadaw engaged with dozens of ethnic armed organizations and the formidable Communist Party of Burma (CPB) insurgency. But it appears as if political intelligence was a priority, coordinated through Khin Nyunt and the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI), in the period of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) between 1988-1997, and its successor the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). This also included the creation of a political front, the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), in 1994 to handle political intelligence and a more palatable public relations front.
This was a slight elevation from the hilariously clumsy, paranoid press conferences Khin Nyunt would officiate over in the few years following the 1988 Uprising which ended Socialist rule, itself a colossal failure of intelligence, as Selth makes clear. But Khin Nyunt’s version of the truth did generate a unique canon of caricatured studies, called a Skyful of Lies (regarding radio broadcasts from the BBC and VOA), and The Conspiracy of Treasonous Minions Within the Myanmar Naing-Ngan and Traitorous Cohorts Abroad, published periodically in both Burmese and English state media and as stand-alone reports. These were designed to discredit the National League for Democracy (NLD), the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), and insurgent groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU) in a dark web of comedic conspiracy. They were also indicative of a level of paranoia similar to that which gripped the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) James Jesus Angleton’s destructive search for a Russian mole within that agency’s upper echelons.
As an insight into the pathology of MI and its leadership, these SLORC-era publications should not be excised from any examination of their conduct, and Selth could have given a little more space to these performances of authoritarian control. It has never been clear if these performances and publications were an exercise in social intimidation, the simulacra of control, serious attempts at stitching together disparate threads of perceived security threats, inept and ill-informed intelligence strands, or a turgid mix of all of these with a tongue in cheek attempt at humor. MI may have gotten many things right, in terms of names of people and locations of meetings, but the presentation of their overarching analysis was often like a slapstick Burmese version of the classic TV spy show Get Smart.
What Selth does gloss over is that during this period, MI was the lead agency responsible for the arrest, incarceration, and institutionalized torture of political activists, journalists and many other perceived critics of the SLORC, including many people currently serving as members of parliament: by one estimate around 122 MPs spent time in prison for political ‘offenses’ during the SLORC/SPDC era.
The book also looks into the other intelligence agencies—especially Special Branch (SB) which was always subordinate to the monopolistic menace of MI—and other nominally civilian branches. The apparatus included the alleged creation of ‘death squads’ called Dam Byan Byaut Kya (Guerilla Retaliation Unit)—which allegedly engaged in targeted assassinations of KNU officials and their families between 1998 to 2004, first reported by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) in 1999 —but apparently did not operate in other conflict zones. Burma is relatively unique from other civil wars in that excesses by security and intelligence services have rarely been directly outsourced to shadowy paramilitaries, although the vast web of Pyithu Sit (People’s Militia) and Border Guard Forces (BGF’s) are in effect subcontractors of local control.
Arguably Khin Nyunt and MI’s greatest success was in reaching ‘standfast agreements’ (only the Kachin Independence Organization had a fully written ceasefire) with 17 ethnic armed organizations, including the four factions of the CPB, the largest of which, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) remains Burma’s biggest non-state armed group. This was hardly ‘entering the legal fold’ as DDSI/OSS routinely presented it, but more the cessation of fighting to pursue ceasefire capitalism, as Kevin Woods has aptly labeled it. For the Wa, Kokang, and Mong La groups, that meant a degree of autonomy and increased investment in Burma’s narcotics trade. Unfortunately, Selth doesn’t dive deeper into this aspect of MI and Khin Nyunt’s legacy, or how those past arrangements have impacted on current dynamics around peace or national reconciliation.
The real strength of the book is Chapter Three and the fall of Khin Nyunt and MI (p.56-81). Selth outlines this bombshell in Burmese history extremely well, with the forced resignation of Khin Nyunt ‘for health reasons’ (in effect a dismissal by Senior General Than Shwe) and the arrest of hundreds of MI officers for corruption, culminating in a remarkable 18-page briefing by Generals Soe Win and Thura Shwe Mann for Khin Nyunt’s purported offenses: disobeying orders, MI’s involvement in illegal economic activities, Khin Nyunt and his family’s involvement in bribery, and MI exceeding its power and responsibilities. For an individual and a faction who effectively ran a state within a state, the speed and effectiveness of the purge was stunning, as was the almost unprecedented SPDC public justification for it.
Selth offers up five theories for the purge: policy, power, personal, pillage, and preservation. Perceptions that Khin Nyunt was forging a different foreign policy than the military leadership, towards the West and China, Selth refutes by observing “there was little serious disagreement on fundamental issues like the countries direction” (p.62). The power theory holds more weight, in that the ‘combat arm’ of the Tatmadaw was increasingly uncomfortable with the influence of the ‘intelligence arm’, and sought to restore this balance in favor of the war-fighting faction. The personal theory outlines the enmity towards Khin Nyunt by the SPDC’s no.2, General Maung Aye, based on public profile but also Maung Aye’s standing within the Tatmadaw as a graduate of the more prestigious Defence Services Academy (DSA) rather than Khin Nyunt’s alma mater the Officer Training School (OTS), and Maung Aye’s reputation as a battle-hardened leader. The pillage theory is based on MI’s extensive engagement in the informal and black economies, and the enormous illicit rent-seeking MI pursued, that provoked a covetous competition within the military. The preservation theory rests on the contention that Khin Nyunt’s recent elevation to the role of Prime Minister (hitherto not included in the regime hierarchy) was a way for Senior General Than Shwe to dilute his intelligence responsibilities, which Khin Nyunt resisted by compiling dossiers on senior leaders as insurance against any move on him. Selth offers up these theories as all containing “elements of the truth…but to what extent, and what combination, remain difficult to tell” (p.65).
At this point the book loses its main villain, and becomes a technical analysis of post-2004 intelligence machinations, with the post-purge creation of the more centralized Office of the Chief of Military Security Affairs (OCMSA). Khin Nyunt as an individual and his legacy are frustratingly unexamined. The spy-chief was almost a chameleon in the way he charmed, for most of a decade, a conga-line of cretinous foreigners who wanted to believe in his reformist rhetoric, from United Nations Special Envoys to diplomats and journalists. The absurd assertion that he was a ‘softliner’ or a ‘pragmatist’, which Selth does a fine job of dissembling, was always a hiding to nothing. He was just less of a troglodyte than other senior officers of the Tatmadaw. I recall a prominent Western ‘Burma Watcher’ at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok in 2004 around the time of the purge, drunkenly whining to me and a companion, “I’m angry at Khin Nyunt. He lied to me.” He seemed genuinely shocked when I replied that thuggish spy chiefs lie for a living, and that umbrage should be directed at himself for being so gullible.
One of the weakest chapters, in my view, is that of operational intelligence failings, of which the Burmese military is institutionally prone. The Tatmadaw also apparently gave scant attention to the rise of the Arakan Army (AA), which has over the past two years become its latest arch enemy, in a long list of ethnic insurgent nemeses, and has inflicted grotesque losses on the Tatmadaw as a fighting force. One can only conclude from this litany of lost insight that the military is incapable of constructing a more effective blend of battlefield awareness and more strategic intelligence responses, quite likely due to a culture of obstinate ultra-nationalist elite corporate culture that considers ethnic nationalities inferior. Or the Tatmadaw is plain incompetent. But another possibility can be raised. Perhaps the Tatmadaw is just always spoiling for a fight? A more general conclusion is that the military has obstinately refused to adopt even the basic tenants of counter-insurgency, despite 70 years of gruelling civil war. Its responses to the rise of the Northern Alliance and to the strikes against Laukkai in 2015 and 2017, Muse in late 2016, and most daringly, against Pyin Oo Lwin in August 2019, indicate a laissez-faire laxness to clear and present security threats.
There are two elements to Secrets and Power in Myanmar that limit its impact; the overuse of sourcing, to a distracting degree, and its unsatisfying final chapter on accountability.
Selth is the indisputable master of open-source intelligence and the doyen of deft political analysis that includes all possible permutations and possibilities. This approach should be studied and emulated, especially to leaven the questionable dependence on quantitative data and spurious system analysis that abounds in security studies on Burma. Selth has a more rigorous and readable style that is well suited to propounding the complexities of political machinations in Burma.
However, just because something is an open source, it doesn’t make it a good source. There are numerous questionable references contained in the footnotes – and these make up just under half the length of the book itself. Several times I thought Selth had made an interesting correlation or observation, only to flip to the citations and wonder how he reached that conclusion from such a poor source, which may not actually have had those exact details within. Some sources he includes are really just so wanting they shouldn’t have been cited at all, especially from someone so slavish to accuracy. So in short, Selth overdoes it.
A close reading of these copious references uncovers several mistakes, obviously made only in haste. For example (Chapter 3, Footnote 75), Peter Popham didn’t author the dreadful Perfect Hostage: that would be Justin Wintle. Peter Popham wrote the dreadful The Lady and the Peacock. Also, Delphine’s Schrank’s The Rebel of Rangoon is not a work of “popular Western fiction”, as Selth footnotes it (Chapter 5, Footnote 114), but reportage, and a pretty fine one at that, with first-hand accounts of the cat and mouse games political activists and the intelligence services played in the late 2000’s. One shouldn’t quibble at minor mistakes, but they tend to mount up. The copious citations do not undermine Selth’s sound central arguments, they’re simply distracting.
The book stumbles at the end when Selth turns to questions of accountability. You would think, given the gravity of crimes perpetrated by Khin Nyunt and MI, the author would advance some thoughts on holding them legally accountable. Instead in just five pages, it is questions of civilian oversight and what interference, or even interest, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD administration would have over the intelligence services. Selth’s summation is perfunctory, even parsimonious. Apart from the repeal of a few colonial era and Socialist period laws, the NLD is clearly disinclined to dilute the dependence of OCMSA and SB on residual repressive laws, in effect preserving both their power and their impunity for past crimes.
This widespread disregard for the past in Burma has served to tacitly exculpate the rank war criminal that Khin Nyunt really is. He has instead been elevated to almost kitsch retro-authoritarian oddity, an incongruous rehabilitation as art gallery owner, orchid grower and author. He has been the subject of a few fawning Western profiles, Hannah Beech in Time magazine setting the tone in 2013. Thomas Fuller in the New York Times in 2013 also treats Khin Nyunt with kid gloves, granting him the space to bleat these pathetic lines: “to err is human…(I was doing) what I was ordered to. I had no intention of doing harm to others. I believe that I did no violence, I did no injustice.”
Yet, Khin Nyunt also admitted to The Guardian journalist Nick Davies in 2016, “I had a different opinion then of what was happening, and we ended up shooting people. But I see now that that was bad. It was a mistake to shoot people.” Which makes him an unrepentant liar, coward, and criminal at large. Despite this, his consequence-free cachet inexplicitly persists. An American freelance filmmaker took a grinning selfie with Khin Nyunt and plastered it all over Twitter in 2017, which must have enraged many Burmese who suffered at the hands of MI. It’s no wonder accountability seems as far away in Burma as recent history does, when Western journalists, academics, and peace-industrial complex groupies are failing in their duty to report the facts in context. On the past as much as the present.
Selth fails to include in his book an important DVB documentary from late 2018, “Blood-stained days in Tharyawaddy Prison”, an account of torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners in this notorious facility in Pegu Region. It includes interviews with former prison guards and prisoners, and details routine use of torture, admitted to by a number of the guards. Khin Nyunt makes a cameo appearance at the end, taking a break from watering the plants in his Nawaday art gallery to angrily deny any knowledge of these charges, quivering on camera as he claims; “There was no specific instruction given to the prison staff to torture or abuse prisoners. I would never give them instructions to beat up and torture inmates. We, as leaders of the country, did not have that kind of conviction. No, we didn’t.”
One of Burma’s most effective civil society organizations has been the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPPB), which recently marked twenty years of painstaking and principled endeavors to document the hell endured by dissidents, journalists and activists, and the institutionalized torture of detainees. And yet there are still official and private denials of past atrocities perpetrated by the security services, which resonate today in the backsliding of basic freedoms and growing numbers of political prisoners.
Selth in no way exonerates Khin Nyunt. But he does let him off lightly. Secrets and Power in Myanmar is an important addition to reckoning with Burma’s dark past and modern understandings of the oppressive mechanics of military rule. But in its measured, almost bloodless erudition, it strips the victims of Khin Nyunt’s crimes of the very thing they have been patiently insisting on: acknowledgement.
Until these admissions are forthcoming, any study of Khin Nyunt’s role in modern Burmese history—and the Tatmadaw writ large—should end with the words from one of that sordid system of repression’s eminent resistors, Hanthawaddy U Win Tin: “I’ll tell you who he should apologize to. He should apologize to former political prisoners, their families and the whole country.” The further study of Burmese intelligence networks should make that statement a humanitarian, as much as an intellectual, imperative.
(Cover image courtesy of ISEAS Publishing)
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues.