Burma’s Feared Ex-Spy Chief Finds a New Life as a Gallery Owner

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Ye Aung Thu / AFP / Getty Images

Former Burmese Prime Minister and military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt arrives to cast his vote at a polling station in Rangoon, Burma, on April 1, 2012

On a muggy day in May in the ramshackle city of Rangoon, an elderly Burmese man straightened rows of jade jewelry in a souvenir case. He organized a stack of traditional Burmese music CDs, one of which was playing in the gift shop. And he extolled the virtues of the small contemporary-art gallery he had just opened in what used to be a fruit grove in his garden. “The paintings are very nice,” he told me in English, smiling from behind his golden spectacles, a simple Burmese sarong wrapped around his waist. “You are welcome to go see.” Inside the whitewashed space were canvases of racing horses, tribal beauties and, of course, the golden pagoda spires that define this predominantly Buddhist land.

For years, former general Khin Nyunt, now in his mid-70s, was one of the most feared men in Burma, known officially as Myanmar. The spy chief of an ironfisted military regime, his was a name mentioned in whispers by anyone with a predilection for dissent, be they a democrat or journalist. Khin Nyunt’s military-intelligence thugs tortured and jailed across the country. In 1988, he was among a military coterie that dispatched soldiers to deal with student-led pro-democracy protesters — a ruthless crackdown that stands in history as Burma’s Tiananmen massacre. His nickname? The Prince of Evil or sometimes, for variation, the Prince of Darkness.

Named Prime Minister of Burma in 2003, Khin Nyunt was purged a year later in what was widely considered a power play by then junta chief Than Shwe. He was charged with insubordination and corruption. The crimes earned him a 44-year jail sentence but Khin Nyunt spent his confinement under house arrest, instead of languishing in one of Burma’s many notorious prisons. In January 2012, he was released as part of a larger prisoner amnesty — just one of the many unexpected episodes after the military government transferred power to a quasi-civilian government in March 2011. (Two of his sons, who were also implicated in graft, have been freed too.)

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After his release, Khin Nyunt was briefly ordained as a Buddhist monk, a popular move in Burma among the penitent or, at least, the seemingly contrite. A man once reputed to obsess over his clothes and wear makeup has largely kept out of the public eye. But in mid-May, Khin Nyunt added a further distinction to his eclectic CV, that of Nawaday gallery, gift-shop and coffee-corner owner. The commercial enterprise is located in the garden of the residential compound where he was confined for seven years. “I am just doing this for my peaceful life,” he said, when I asked why he would open his home to art lovers, tourists and, presumably, the occasional victim of the former regime’s excesses. (He also said he “tries to paint” in his spare time.) In a preface to the Nawaday gallery catalog, Khin Nyunt writes that his motivation is simply to “support the promotion of Burmese art to the world.”

Khin Nyunt’s nephew Mon Thet, a well-regarded painter whose canvases mix pastel-hued flowers and Burmese maidens, is in charge of the gallery and has convinced some of the country’s top painters to exhibit. Inside the single room, lavish displays of flowers from the Japan-Myanmar Association and others congratulate Khin Nyunt on his new venture. One of the artists whose portraits are part of the inaugural show is Nay Myo Say, a successful multimedia artist who founded an artistic cooperative (as well as bar and coffee shop) in Rangoon that included politically active elements. Nay Myo Say admits that he was surprised when he heard Khin Nyunt was opening a gallery, but also acknowledges a chronic lack of gallery space in Rangoon, officially known as Yangon. “I am glad as an artist that this new gallery has now appeared,” he says. “Regarding my feelings concerning exhibiting my artwork at Nawaday gallery, I don’t feel anything different. And besides, I never mingle other issues with my art.”

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For all his past sins as part of Burma’s brutal junta, Khin Nyunt was not a monochromatically evil figure. To the anger of more-conservative members of the junta, he reached out to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose commitment to democracy and nonviolent resistance earned her a Nobel Peace Prize. He led efforts to reach peace accords with some of the many ethnic militias that were battling the Burmese army for autonomy. And he was linked to a brief economic opening that saw a trickle of foreign companies and tourists enter the country. With Khin Nyunt’s purge, many of those tendrils of reform withered for years.

After our brief chat and a tour of the art gallery, I sat in the Nawaday coffee shop, also located in Khin Nyunt’s garden, next to a table of men who sported the distinct haircuts, pressed white shirts and dark longyis of Special Branch, the country’s intelligence services. The menu boasted Arabian beef kofta, Mandalay Pizza and Prawn Fantasy Salad. Norah Jones and Michael Bublé played on the loudspeakers. As I drank lime juice, I saw Khin Nyunt in the distance, shuffling through rows of orchids hanging from trellises. During his incarceration, Khin Nyunt tried to support his family by raising the blooms. And on this heat-choked May day, as he wandered through his garden, the former spy chief occasionally reached out his hand to caress his orchids. The Prince of Darkness was finally walking in the light.

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