YANGON, Myanmar—When Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt was a leader in the junta that formerly ruled Myanmar, the spy apparatus that he ran was capable of punishing ordinary citizens for even uttering the word “democracy.”
Now, nearly a decade after he was ousted in a power play and placed under house arrest, he wishes someone would just call.
“I have so much experience, but no one has asked me for help as a consultant or strategist,” said Mr. Khin Nyunt, almost wistfully. “If anyone approaches me, I will give good advice, which will be in our country’s interest—I am not a politician, so I won’t be biased.”
Once the most-feared man in Myanmar, the former general now tends orchids, meditates and runs a small art gallery. Little betrays the power he wielded over a sweeping security system known as MI—Military Intelligence—and as the regime’s most pragmatic international strategist at a time when his country was shunned by the outside world.
“I spent 45 years serving in the military,” says Mr. Khin Nyunt, dressed in a checked shirt and traditional Burmese longyi. “But my life now is very happy and peaceful.”
But in the center of his living room, a computer screen filled with 16 minidisplays, switching between different views of the compound, hints that this is no average 73-year-old. On walls and shelves, amid family pictures and Buddha statues, three gold-trimmed portraits stand out, showcasing the former general in full military garb.
Somewhat distrusted by the more traditional military men, he was considered the smartest of the three or four generals who ran the country and was the protégé of the late Ne Win, the father of Burmese socialism who launched nearly a half-century of dictatorship.
He was a key figure during the bloody suppression of the 1988 uprising that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence, and he earned the title “Prince of Evil” for brutally punishing opponents of the regime. Feared by dissidents or just ordinary people who learned to lower their voices in conversation, his informants were assumed to be everywhere—the man watching the hotel fax machine, the pair lurking all day at a tea shop.
Named prime minister in 2003, the general was purged a year later in a power play by Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who led the junta. Charged with corruption—a claim he still denies—Mr. Khin Nyunt spent the next several years under house arrest.
He was freed in January 2012 during a release of political prisoners—most of whom he had put in jail—by the mostly former military men who are shepherding a transition to democratic rule.
More than 20 of his associates are still imprisoned and have had to sign agreements that they won’t be involved in politics upon release—ensuring they and the art of manipulation they mastered stay far away from the current state apparatus.
Their families are campaigning for their release, but Bertil Lintner, a journalist and consultant specializing in Myanmar who followed the era closely, said it is unlikely that they will be freed anytime soon.
“The problem is that these guys know too much,” Mr. Lintner said.
In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Khin Nyunt said that while under house arrest, he had to sell household items and the gifts that he had received as prime minister to afford basic necessities, like food. Once a week, his family would sell orchids at a market, their only regular source of income.
“I could not leave my house, or talk to friends or relatives, and they could not come to see me, either,” Mr. Khin Nyunt said. He was escorted by security personnel even when walking around his garden.
“Every morning I’d wake up, pay respect to the image of the Buddha, meditate, and walk around my compound. Most of my time was spent gardening, reading the news—the New Light of Myanmar—and listening to the radio, including the BBC, the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia,” he said.
His experience in home detention was not unlike that of Ms. Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest at the hands of Mr. Khin Nyunt and his comrades. He paid a notable visit to her in 1994, a few years after she had won the Nobel Peace Prize and her party won elections that the military ignored. The visit was intended to start a dialogue between the government and opposition. Former U.S. congressman and ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who visited Ms. Suu Kyi shortly after the meeting, described Mr. Khin Nyunt as a “pragmatic individual who is sincere,” and analysts say he was instrumental in keeping her alive and out of prison when other generals simply wanted her dead.
Ms. Suu Kyi has said in numerous interviews that she, too, spent much of her time under house arrest meditating, reading books on philosophy and politics and listening to the news.
“In my mind, she is like my sister,” Mr. Khin Nyunt said.
Ms. Suu Kyi declined to be interviewed for this article.
Mr. Khin Nyunt didn’t comment further on his relationship with Ms. Suu Kyi, now or in the past, but in an interview with the Bangkok Post in April he claimed that he intervened to save her life from a mob attack in 2003. He was investigated over the statement and operatives from the Special Branch of the Myanmar police—part of the security apparatus that has since replaced his MI unit—stormed a monastery he was praying in.
“The Special Branch came to him, when Mr. Khin Nyunt was studying with monks at our monastery,” said U Zin Blue, a senior monk at the Alodawpyae monastery in Yangon. “They asked him why he said that to the Bangkok Post, and Khin Nyunt told them not to intimidate him as if he was an enemy of the country, because he never broke any laws.”
He runs a small café and art gallery in a separate wing of his home. The gallery frequently holds exhibitions, showcasing rising talent free of charge.
Though he played a crucial role in mastering an apparatus that imprisoned thousands of dissidents, torturing many of them, Mr. Khin Nyunt insists that the transformation is one he fully supports. “Political reform is a good thing,” he said. “We must go forward, we must democratize—a military government cannot work for a long time.”
Politics, he says, is the job of the young—particularly in the transitional period.
Still, Mr. Khin Nyunt feels democracy must be “disciplined.” His role models for leadership are Singapore’s first prime minister and founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, and China’s reformist leader, the late Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Lee, in an interview in 2007 with Tom Plate and Jeffrey Cole that appeared on the website Asia Media, referred to Mr. Khin Nyunt as “the most intelligent of the lot” of Myanmar’s generals. Through his office, Mr. Lee declined to comment.
Despite Myanmar’s strides toward democracy over the past year, there has been no talk or push for the criminal prosecution of generals from the previous regime, not even from Ms. Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy, many of whom have experienced the brutality of the regime first-hand. The military still controls a quarter of seats in parliament, and former generals lead the country’s nominally civilian government. National elections are scheduled for 2015.
Even as Mr. Khin Nyunt enjoys the quiet aspects of his life, politics are never far from his mind. In the interview, he detailed how he negotiated cease-fires with Myanmar’s myriad ethnic militias in the late 1980s, considered by analysts as one of the great accomplishments of his career. His tactic, he said, was to approach these groups with “confidence” and to establish “respect, trust and transparency.”
Some of the agreements collapsed after Mr. Khin Nyunt was put under house arrest. The job of finding lasting peace with the ragtag militias remains a challenge for the current administration, which is trying to achieve a national cease-fire by year-end.
While evading detailed answers to questions about his actions as intelligence chief, he said he never had any particular political ambition. “It was my duty—I was following orders, so I was involved in the process,” he said.
Those he put behind bars are less convinced of his innocence.
“I believe Khin Nyunt is talking rubbish, with a mind on his exoneration for his crimes,” said Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who spent 11 years in jail, an experience he blames solely on Khin Nyunt and MI. “The process of justice is not as simple as that.”
Write to Shibani Mahtani at email@example.com
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