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When U Win Htein arrives at Sharky’s restaurant in Yangon, Myammar’s biggest city, he is stooped over a walking stick but his eyes gleam like the polished metal bird’s head on the handle of his cane. The former Myanmar army officer, ex-political prisoner and aide to Aung San Suu Kyi is in a mischievous mood.
First he urges me to buy a Swiss Army knife from a Victorinox display case next to our table. Then, as we take our seats on the wooden benches outside, he jokes that it is a novelty for him to have an interview recorded with his knowledge, rather than by an eavesdropping secret policeman. “I am not worried about this, because it is open,” he says, rolling out the first of many rasping chuckles.
But, faced with a rich “glocal” menu that applies European cooking styles to domestic produce, the 73-year-old’s mood shifts. Last year, he collapsed in parliament, and now, because of a heart condition, he breathes oxygen from a tank while he sleeps, and must be careful about his diet. He mulls going for grilled vegetables and perhaps a little fish, and asks if I have heard how a rival MP had collapsed a few days earlier and is seriously ill in hospital.
I am starting to feel a bit guilty for choosing a restaurant in which red meat and cheese loom large but Win Htein waves away my concern, citing an old saying that the end of life is merely “the bending of the elbow, it’s just a moment”. He seems very adjusted to the idea of dying, I say.
“Of course. Anything that happens to me is welcome,” he replies. “I have done everything I wanted to do in my life, and I haven’t committed any sin or nothing, almost nothing . . . I told my people around me, especially the Lady [as Suu Kyi is known], ‘Don’t cry for me.’ Don’t cry for me, Argentina. You know the song of Madonna? Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”
Joviality and mortality will frame this lunch with a figure who has travelled on much of his country’s long arc from brutal dictatorship to landmark parliamentary elections. In fact, though Win Htein currently sits in the country’s rejuvenated legislature, he plans to step down in November at this most unpredictable of polls. While Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is expected to do well, the Lady herself is currently barred from the presidency on the grounds that her two sons are British nationals.
The prospects of the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party (USDP), which faces possible electoral annihilation and an internal power struggle, are also unclear. For the country has been going through profound changes since the military stepped down in 2011, if not out of public life, after holding power for almost half a century.
Since then, the first national mobile phone networks have arrived, new local and foreign businesses are emerging, and the country has been reborn as a destination for international visitors. But internal conflict simmers, poverty is still acute in the rural heartlands, and corruption and abuses of power continue. Debate rages over whether the transition from authoritarianism is half-full or half-empty.
U Win Htein, who was born in 1941, says he has led “three different lives” during the tumult that followed Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. The first, he recounts as a colourful medley of vegetables arrives, was a 13-year stint in the army, where he rose to the rank of captain. His parents, who had 12 younger children, couldn’t afford for him to go to university.
“That’s why I choose the free education,” he says. “That’s the army.”
He supplemented his English lessons with voracious reading. Apart from Sherlock Holmes, swashbucklers such as The Three Musketeers and early James Bond novels, he says he has always been attracted to works about the “struggle and suffering of the ordinary people for the righteous cause”. (He cites in particular Leon Uris’s writing on the Warsaw Ghetto.)
When I ask if he thought the army was a righteous cause, he considers the question for a moment, before responding that he took at face value the military’s argument for maintaining at all costs the unity of a fractious multi-ethnic country sloughed off from British India. “One thing is that at that time I was weak,” he says. “Weak in analysing the events which were occurring in our country.”
The arrival of a plate of pink slices of rabbit from the troubled border state of Shan leads us down another conversational warren. Win Htein recalls how, as a boy growing up in the city of Meiktila, west of Shan, he used to hunt rabbits — not very successfully, which in turn leads him to consider more recent political troubles in the region.
In 2013 he tried to stop Buddhist extremist mobs from attacking Muslims in violence that left at least 44 people dead. Some Buddhists in Meiktila were angry with him and accused him of favouring Muslims. Today Win Htein plays the reaction down, saying it was only ever a minority view and has, in any case, died down: “We Burmese have very short memories, very short memories,” he says without obvious irony.
But his take on the Meiktila rampage is interesting, especially in the light of the current escalating crisis around the persecuted Muslim Rohingya people, who straddle the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. More than 100,000 Rohingya languish in refugee camps in Myanmar, denied jobs, voting rights and freedom of movement. Many have risked perilous escapes on people-smugglers’ boats, an exodus that earlier this year triggered a Southeast Asian counterpart to the Mediterranean migrant crisis.
Win Htein’s party and Suu Kyi herself have been criticised internationally for failing to offer more forthright condemnation of the government action against the Rohingya. But Win Htein echoes his leader’s defence that the party is agitating for respect for human rights and for a resolution of the questions of citizenship. Win Htein says “second-generation Muslims” should be allowed to stay, but that the government should be talking to neighbouring Bangladesh about taking in what he claims — there is an absence of good statistics — are several hundred thousand more recent incomers.
“The national government, when the problems started there, they waited, waited, waited until the problem became huge,” he says, sounding not unlike an anti-immigration European politician. “Now they don’t know what to do. They didn’t take any action. One thing they should do is engage with the Bangladesh government, tell them our problem. Because all the people came from there.”
When Win Htein left the army in 1976, he found work as a middleman helping European companies to do business in a country where the economy was in large parts closed to outsiders. As we tackle our rare steak and red wine — earlier thoughts of fish having been abandoned — he describes this second career with freewheeling relish.
His clients, generating as much as $300,000 in commission a time, ranged from a sugar producer to a vodka company. The problem was that his activities were, strictly speaking, illegal under the laws governing foreign business at the time, so he had to be subtle.
The silence of junior officials could be bought with “only one bottle of whisky or one carton of cigarettes”, while the proceeds needed to be carefully cloaked. “I didn’t dare to build a proper house, I didn’t dare to buy a saloon, I had to use a very, very shabby-looking car to mislead the authorities,” he says, adding that he also quietly built bungalows for his parents and his father-in-law.
So it was a kind of money laundering, then? “Yes!” he replies, mischief bubbling over once more.
Things changed for Win Htein in 1988, as they did for many other people in the country known then (as it still is in some circles) as Burma. A massive uprising against military rule led to the killing or jailing of thousands of people during a bloody crackdown. Win Htein threw his lot in with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, saying he felt a “sense of responsibility” to fight the oppression.
“I had military experience, so I accompanied Aung San Suu Kyi wherever she went, up and down the country,” he says.
“I was personally involved. And then that’s why military people, the military junta were very disappointed in me because they regarded me as a traitor. Since I was ex-army, they assumed that I should support them. But what I did was the opposite of their expectation.”
Two years later the junta held elections — though when the results delivered a landslide for Suu Kyi’s party, they were simply ignored. Win Htein had been jailed in 1989 for his role in the uprising, and was to spend almost all of the following two decades in detention. He and his fellow political detainees were “treated like criminals”, he says, dependent on food and medicines sent by families allowed to visit only once a month. Of nine other long-term political prisoners held with him, he reckons only two now play a role in public life.
“Some lost homes, some lost business, some lost family, some lost political belief, some changed their political belief,” he says. “Out of 10, three people remained normal. So I was one of the fortunate ones.”
As we finish our main course, the restaurant’s founder, Ye Htut Win — Sharky is his nickname — joins us from the next table to ask how we’re finding the lunch. Win Htein invites Sharky to tell us about his background, and the restaurateur explains that he is from a diplomatic family, grew up around the world, once ran a Geneva nightclub, and has returned with new ideas. Thinking outside the box is crucial to the country’s development, he says.
Win Htein chuckles. “We are also thinking outside the box. That’s why we are put in the jail so many times!”
In prison Win Htein was sometimes kept in solitary confinement, but says he considers himself fortunate to have read books about the psychological techniques of the CIA and KGB. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was particularly helpful, as were his Buddhist beliefs. “Plus meditation,” he adds. “Every morning, every evening, but you’ve got to be careful in meditation. If you don’t meditate with the proper teacher, you could go nuts.”
He never hesitated, he says, about restarting his political activism after his release in 2010, shortly before the military gave way to a quasi-civilian government. In Suu Kyi and the NLD, he and others “found our calling or family; not in a religious way but we truly believe in the cause”, he says.
He has also not shied away, he continues, from engaging with adversaries and ex-military comrades such as President Thein Sein, and Thura Shwe Mann (once the junta’s number three but now speaker of parliament’s lower house and an ally of Suu Kyi), both former generals.
“They were the class of ’67. I was the class of ’63,” he says. “I know them quite well. I used to say, I used to joke, that we are the same beans in the same basket. So we can guess quite correctly what they have done, or thought they were doing.”
In a typical moment of chutzpah, he says he suggested to President Thein Sein last year that he should stand down. “ ‘U Thein Sein,’ I told him . . . ‘You will have an honoured place in the history of country, but you should know when to stop.’ For the first part he was pleased, but the second part . . .” he smiles, tailing off.
As the elections approach, more questions are being asked about the longevity of “the Lady”, Win Htein’s boss. Suu Kyi turned 70 in June and, as she dives deeper into civilian politics, she is having to spend more time denying longstanding accusations that her personal dominance has stifled the growth of her party and the emergence of potential successors. Win Htein acknowledges the party’s degree of dependence on the woman also known as Daw Suu is “not healthy”. He also admits some critics’ perceptions that her international upbringing can make her seem at times remote from less privileged citizens may be “partly true”.
But most of all he loyally defends Suu Kyi as the people’s choice. The bottom line, after all these years, is that he is still a believer. November’s election will be the great test of how many of his fellow citizens feel the same.
“She’s a phenomenon,” he says, recalling some of his early trips around the country with her. “Suppose that on our way up-country, our car broke down in a small town. We would stop and wait for the repair sitting in a tea shop. When the people learnt that she was there, children, women, men and everybody came to just meet with her. That kind of attraction is very rare, that kind of charisma.”
Over Sharky’s own ice cream, I return to a point Win Htein raised earlier. Is it true that he’s never committed a sin — or at least nothing too serious?
He replies that when he was in army, he did kill insurgents. But he had no guilty conscience, because he thought he was doing the right thing. He acknowledges that this is an argument that other military men in repressive regimes, from Myanmar to the Middle East, might also use.
“I thought that I was, in a way, following my responsibility as a career military man,” he says. “If you look at it that way, I would be full of sin — killing.”
As we round off with coffee, Win Htein seems like a man who has made his peace with the world. This epic three-hour lunch feels like a précis of a well-lived life. He is resolutely unsentimental and light of spirit, yet the occasion still has an elegiac undertow.
He excuses himself after coffee because he has to meet an “up-and-coming” MP who has just arrived at the restaurant. I ask Win Htein if he will be retiring from public life come the November elections. He says not: he will continue to be “deeply involved” in politics, although at the level of party rather than nation. Like a venerable supporting actor, he is apparently preparing to retreat to the sidelines, as the principals prepare for a showdown centre stage.
“I will have to check the future of the party,” Win Htein says. “The future of the country is Daw Suu’s job.”
Michael Peel is the FT’s Bangkok regional correspondent
Illustration by James Ferguson
This article was revised on August 27, 2015, to substitute the words ‘Polish ghetto’ with ‘Warsaw Ghetto’.