Four members of General Ne Win’s family were sentenced to death for high treason in 2002. This was seen by many as an attempt by Myanmar’s military leaders to demonstrate its independence from the former dictator, who came to power in 1962.
Last week, two of his grandsons were released from prison under a presidential amnesty. I sub-edited an interview with his grandson, Ko Aye Ne Win, for Myanma Freedom Daily and have been given permission to republish it on my blog.
The interview took place at Ko Aye Ne Win’s home in Yangon and he was interviewed by Myanma Freedom Daily’s reporter Wai Sandar Kyaw.
Rumors abound that President U Thein Sein is a puppet leader. What is your view on this?
Such allegations are baseless. Speaking from personal experience, my father and my youngest brother Zwe Ko were released in January 2012. We were imprisoned on the same charges and are from the same family. So in theory, we could have been released at the same time, but the government didn’t choose to do so, which proves that President U Thein Sein isn’t under anyone’s thumb. There’s no bad blood between the president and my family and the timing of our release was appropriate. Furthermore, I’d like to say that the release of the Ne Win family poses no threat whatsoever to the President U Thein Sein – in fact, he has extended goodwill towards us as we both come from a military background. When the vice-president and ministers were appointed last year, the MP for Meiktila township, U Win Htein, made a comment in the House of Representatives suggesting that the president lacked the authority to make any changes to the cabinet. His reasoning was based on the fact that the president has not released former high ranking members of military intelligence, such as U Khin Nyunt, despite the fact that the presidents holds no grudge against such individuals.
He said these words as a lawmaker and he assumed the responsibility for his words. What’s more, he won three awards while serving in the army and is one of the most senior persons in the history of Defence Services Academy (DSA). We should treat his view as a testimony of an expert and not a guess. But, what he said that the power of the president is limited is not meant to underplay the role of the president. That the president has come this far in spite of the shackles of recent past deserves our acknowledgement and praise.
You were found guilty of high treason under Section 122 of the Penal Code and sentenced to death. In Myanmar, high treason has often been invoked arbitrarily to punish those deemed to be odds with the former military regime – is there anything you’d like to say about the circumstances surrounding your sentence?
If we look carefully at the four definitions of high treason and take into account that fabricated evidence was used against us, it becomes clear that neither I nor family committed such a crime. We did not engage in armed struggle against the government and we did not provide assistance or incitement to anyone else to do so. Furthermore, the definition requires an attempt to overthrow a government which was elected according to a process set out in the constitution. Yet there was no constitution in force at the time of our arrest in 2002 – it had been suspended by Than Shwe’s State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1988.
You spent 11 years behind bars – what were prison conditions like?
Every day was the same. My routine involved reading, exercise and prayers – that’s it. However prison authorities treated some inmates differently from the rest – they were given extra privileges. Some have said that the Ne Win family was given preferential treatment but in actual fact, we were denied the most basic of rights, such as family visits. From the day I set foot inside prison until the day I was released, I never once saw my family. I assume the military regime was concerned we’d talk about things they didn’t want us to. I was allowed to receive food and medicine packages from my family though, but that was it. Restrictions were also enforced against individual prisoners, such as Hanthawady’s U Win Tin, a senior patron of the National League for Democracy. He wasn’t allowed to bring in any English language books, only Myanmar, though at least he had a large collection in his possession. He and I built up a relationship in prison – we used to share books, which allowed him to read some of my English language books. I asked him many questions and enjoyed listening to him. Years later, when prison authorities discovered that U Win Tin had access to English books, they decided there was no harm in that and allowed him to start having them brought in. Our conversations became very animated and we grew rather close.
After spending such a long time in prison, do you ever experience intense frustration or regret about losing such a large portion of your life?
I’m sad about it. If the government had joined hands with the opposition as they are now, an enormous amount of suffering could have been avoided. My family has extremely sympathy for Daw Aung Suu Kyi not being able to visit her dying husband Michael Aris. She and I are both descendents of the 30 comrades who underwent military training in Japan to against the British. The British royal family sent a request to my grandparents asking them to help Daw Aung San Suu Kyi be allowed to travel to England and return to Myanmar after visiting her husband. It’s shameful that they felt their hands were tied on the matter.
How do you feel knowing that many people have criticized the decision to release you released from prison?
I’m well aware that there is widespread hatred towards the Ne Win family. They enjoyed witnessing our downfall because they were jealous of our power. Nevertheless, I have faith in the people of Myanmar and respect them because regardless of education levels, they are shrewd and not susceptible to deception. I hope that people will understand our past circumstances – but I’m not saying that we were in the right.
Do you want to become active in politics?
I love my country and will always be ready to contribute in any way I can. But there are capable individuals in both the government and opposition and they are now working together. Due to my family’s close connections with senior political figures, I don’t feel it would be appropriate for me to align myself with any particular party. While I’d be glad to give advice to leaders I know personally, I have no plans to take a lead role on the political stage.
That being the case, do you have plans to engage in business in Myanmar?
I saw business opportunities within hours of my release; however it’s too soon to say which type of business I’ll get involved in. One thing’s for sure though: I’m not going to rely on family connections to make it a success. Senior leaders, including U Thein Sein and U Shwe Mann will truthfully tell you that my family has not – and will not – ask for land or cars because we are members of the former ruling elite. We do not own any possessions that were obtained illegally – if anyone were to prove otherwise, I pledge to pay them 10 times the amount that was supposedly unpaid. Although the Ne Win family has played a role in Myanmar’s politics for nearly 70 years, none of us has ever been denied a visa to a country outside Myanmar, nor has any country frozen our assets.
How does it feel to be the grandson of Myanmar’s most infamous dictator?
I am extremely proud of my grandfather as an individual. But the fact that I am so well known is a responsibility, not a privilege or an opportunity. Due to my grandfather’s legacy, I feel it necessary to set a good example. It was my parents who inculcated me with this belief. Let me give you an example: when I was at school one day, a classmate asked to look inside my lunchbox because he wanted to see what sort of food my mother gave me. When he saw that it was just regular rice and curry, he said he was surprised that I was eating the same food as him. My family isn’t so different from any other. However from my early years, I was taught to be humble and not show off the family’s wealth.
Here is a link to an article published in The New York Times about the court case involving Ne Win’s family – Four Relatives of Myanmar’s Ex-Strongman Sentenced to Death (2002)