Aung San Suu Kyi

Brighter days?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2012, 12:00am

Can there be any more intriguing symbol for the remarkable transformation - and, yes, that is the word - under way in Myanmar than the release of former prime minister Khin Nyunt among other political prisoners last Friday?

The former chief of Myanmar's feared military intelligence apparatus, Khin Nyunt was pictured laughing with reporters outside his Yangon home - apparently relaxed and healthy despite eight years in detention and house arrest after his ruling clique was purged in 2004.

For years, Khin Nyunt was the pivotal figure in Myanmar's military junta in the dark years during and after its bloody suppression of nationwide protests in 1988. Yet there he was on Friday, smiling freely as he spoke of not just his pleasure at seeing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi talking with his former military counterpart, President Thein Sein, but also of the importance of the country's new parliament and the press freedoms that have flourished in recent months. He was, after all, hardly known for breezy public candour when running a highly secretive regime, even as he at times attempted a controversial democracy 'road map'.

'I welcome Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts,' the 73-year-old said. 'If she is in the hluttaw (parliament), it will be better than it is now because she is bold and outspoken.'

He also insisted that, as yet, he had no plans to involve himself in the country's emerging political scene. 'I'm very glad to be released, but I haven't given any thought yet to become involved in politics. I need to rest for a while.' He reserved the right to speak out 'if I have something to say for the country'.

The region will be watching closely.

For all Khin Nyunt's 'prince of darkness' image during the 1990s, he is now viewed as a pro-engagement pragmatist when compared with the ineptness, decline, brutality and paranoia that characterised much of Myanmar's past decade.

He oversaw attempts to boost tourism and foreign investment in the 1990s - a brief period of development still visible around Yangon today as it recovers from its more recent torpor. Battered Japanese taxis from that era still ply the streets, though little new building has taken place since.

Will he play a role in fostering such efforts again, or will he revert to a darker past?

A Burmese-Chinese, he had extensive connections in regional capitals among diplomatic and business elites, particularly in Singapore and Thailand and on the mainland. His two sons, prominent in military and commercial circles, were also released. It was no surprise, for example, to see the official China Daily's website highlighting Khin Nyunt's freedom in its coverage of Friday's release of more than 600 prisoners, some now middle-aged student activists from the late 1980s. He is very well known in Beijing, according to diplomats.

More broadly, Friday's prisoner release offers a dramatic chance of meaningful reconciliation inside the country and deeper engagement with the region and the world. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, Myanmar could well be about to have a very good year.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.