YANGON – When Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, released 69 political prisoners last November, two among them stood out – not because they posed a major threat to the military junta that imprisoned them, but because they bore the name of one of the country’s most polarizing figures.
Kyaw Ne Win and his brother Aye Ne Win are grandsons of the military general who took control of Myanmar, known then as Burma, in 1962 and drove it into a 26-year period of isolation. The iron-fisted Ne Win – considered Myanmar’s first dictator – paved the way for decades of military rule, and his policies on nationalizing the economy left the country one of the region’s poorest.
In 2002, his grandsons were found guilty of plotting to overthrow the then-military regime led by general Than Shwe. They were sentenced to death and held behind bars for the next 11 years. Their father and youngest brother were also sentenced to death in the same case and released in January 2012.
Ne Win, found guilty of the same crime of high treason, was sentenced to house arrest in March 2002. He died nine months later in obscurity, without a state funeral or an announcement in state media.
Now, two and a half months after his release, Aye Ne Win is adjusting to life in Yangon, outside the bars of Insein prison. Only 26 years old when he was arrested, he shared his thoughts with theWall Street Journal’s Shibani Mahtani about Myanmar’s reforms, his time in prison and his family’s legacy. Edited excerpts follow.
WSJ: Was it a shock to see how much things have changed in the past decade?
Aye Ne Win: I am actually surprised because I expected more change. Some things are basically the same, especially in the political field.
I was put in prison for high treason, so naturally I am more inclined to look at the political aspects of the country. I find that there are promising and encouraging developments, but there is still a danger.
Next year, we are going to have a democratic election, and it is natural for political parties to criticize each other. But since our people are not very used to that, the followers may see that as an attack to their own personal beliefs. There could be some upheavals, civil disobedience on the grassroots levels, riots and stuff. I am more worried about that – nothing to do with the attitude of the political leaders.
WSJ: Could you describe your life in prison, and how you stayed active and engaged with what was happening outside?
Aye Ne Win: If you are mentally prepared with what you are facing, the major obstacles are overcome. The very knowledge that we were innocent of the crimes that we were accused of was a major boost to us.
For 11 and a half years, my brothers and father and I were kept incommunicado, which was a very unusual experience for prisoners here. Even mass murderers or arsonists can receive family visits. We could ask for food parcels or medicine, but we were never able to meet in person.
A lot of people ask me whether we had preferential treatment while we were there. [Guards] never forced us to clean the toilet or undertake any other manual labor. But they tortured us by keeping us incommunicado. Even my mother was kept under house arrest until 2008, and even when she was let out, she was not allowed to visit us.
WSJ: Why do you think the government at the time was so threatened by your family, as to keep you from speaking to each other?
Aye Ne Win: The most probable answer is that they had charged us with the biggest crime possible in our penal code. During the trial, they made sure the press saw us and took pictures of us, but they were very anxious about what we said in our testimony. They made sure what we said was not reported in the press.
I think they were not very comfortable with the fact the family they put behind bars for 11 and a half years was innocent of the crime.
In January 2012, my father and youngest brother got released. I think they were trying to see what my father and my youngest brother would do after coming out of prison.
The previous government had made so many enemies, but they did not know how to handle us. With their previous enemies, things were black and white, but with us, they didn’t know who would be sympathetic of us. That’s why they are very afraid.
WSJ: Were you able to access reading materials and other materials in prison to keep you informed of current events?
Aye Ne Win: Time in prison was interesting and strange, because the restrictions they imposed varied from prisoner to prisoner. In our compound, we were kept together with U Win Tin, a senior member of the National League for Democracy. He was allowed to receive visits in prison, but he was not allowed to have any reading materials in English. The situation was reversed for us. What we did was that we told him to ask certain questions to his friends when they visited. He would come back with some answers of what was happening outside, and we would give him books in English if he wanted to read them.
WSJ: Do you have any regrets about your time in prison, or feel like your family could have done things any differently?
Aye Ne Win: I don’t feel any regret. Sometimes I feel guilty because I feel we did not put enough effort to bring the two opposing sides closer. Not that we didn’t want them to, but we did not push it further when a certain party showed some reluctance.
My family was in a unique position, we were not strong enough to bring change overnight, but we were in a better place to change the position of a few generals [who were making bad decisions]. So if we took the risk earlier, to do something, it would have been a lot better today.
WSJ: Are you happy with your family’s legacy in Myanmar?
Aye Ne Win: I am quite happy with my family’s legacy. The Burmese, as a people, are a very good judge of character. If we have done something wrong or have deceived them in some way, they will definitely know. But if we have done good things for the country and for the future, they will definitely notice that.
We, as a family, have some strong enemies and that was very natural – we were in politics for 60 years. But some of them had been attacking us all along in a way where they made it seem that their animosity and their hatred for my family was shared by the Burmese people. I think that was a very pathetic attempt. Even though they’ve been trying to portray us in a wrong way, I am not at all worried about our legacy.
WSJ: How have you spent your time since being released from prison?
Aye Ne Win: After coming back from prison, I am just sounding out the situation and seeing what is going on [in Myanmar], and helping with our family business. It has only been two and a half months. A very close friend of mine said: “Aye is doing something, and he is doing nothing, but he seems very busy”. That seems to me like an apt way of answering the question.
– Myo Myo in Yangon contributed.