Inside Story: Inside Burmese history’s second greatest story

Owen Wingrove and Li Shi

Inside Story

Copyright 2019 producer’s discretion

It is not always easy to win over the hearts and minds of people, especially when your country is in turmoil, for whatever reason. That’s why the process of attempting to establish the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government takes time and patience, and why these things are sometimes worth the risk.

And then you have a moment like the one that came about following the fall of Burma’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Facing a dramatic decline in power, she abruptly turned herself into a target for criticism. Yet she couldn’t have picked a more significant moment to do it, because on the same day was the culmination of another period of political theatre: the country’s military was ordered to release its prisoners of conscience, including opposition leader Nyan Win.

During the era of former President Than Shwe, they were often pictured in their military uniforms outside the jail, waiting to see the prisoners again. Today, they were seen sitting outside Nyan Win’s cell once again, but this time, they were more tense, and more anxious.

As the conditions in which they previously held their political prisoners eased, so did the conditions of those whom they incarcerated. But what was once deemed a terrifying punishment has now become a surprising national celebration.

The tensions between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military are expected to worsen, while the military is looking for reassurance that its important support base is not permanently abandoned.

Pairing Military and Dissent

Legal expert Colin Palmer is an expert on criminal procedure. For Inside Story, he analysed how the army could end up sentencing scores of its own dissidents to a long prison term – something so difficult for military courts in Burma in the past.

For two years, all attempts to continue her activities were blocked by the military.

Nyan Win is also a military officer and a former student activist. Yet when the political tide turned against the army, he and others renounced their military service and began their political career in the opposition.

Through it all, he has lived under fear of the military’s intelligence service, the State Peace and Development Council. However, he does not forget that he belongs to the military.

As a former student, he is bound by the higher courts’ legal obligation to refrain from engaging in criticism of the military and its policies. For those reasons, he cannot confirm those claims.

He told us that if those accusations were true, he would be obliged to surrender to them. However, for him to do so, he has to comply with two conditions: namely, that he give an account of those who have defected from the military; and secondly, that he convince the courts that he is indeed a member of the military and thus qualify for an amnesty.

Apart from that, Nyan Win has no alternative but to stand before the highest courts in the country. And right now, the military judges do not accept his explanations.

His supporters and colleagues in the Democratic Union Army, based in Shan State, have asked him to press on and continue to combat the army’s campaign against the armed ethnic minorities, as his role is that of a political leader rather than as a military officer.

However, both he and his supporters do not think that this will be possible. And they fear that should Nyan Win be forced to give up, the cycle of protests against the military will continue.

And without doubt, it will become even harder to win the hearts and minds of the country’s people.

It seems that the future will be defined not by what Aung San Suu Kyi can do, but by what the military – at least indirectly – can do.

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