PORTRAITS: In name of change, Myanmar buries past

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 28, 2013 at 7:46 pm •  Published: March 28, 2013
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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — The day San Zaw Htwe was arrested he tried to chew through the leg of the wooden chair he was shackled to. He could hear a river outside. He figured he could swim away and escape the little room and the big men and the terrible certainty of years in prison.

The former student activist holds up a bony finger. "There was only this much left," he says, breaking into a toothy smile at the memory of the chair leg. "They kicked me. My chair and I fell over." Then his interrogators shackled him to a log. He would serve 12 years for distributing anti-government leaflets.

San Zaw Htwe will turn 39 on Saturday, the second anniversary of the day President Thein Sein took office and pledged to transform Myanmar from a military dictatorship into a free-market democracy. Thein Sein's administration has made remarkable progress toward that goal, but at a price that San Zaw Htwe knows only too well: forgetting the past.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — This story is part of "Portraits of Change," a yearlong series by The Associated Press examining how the opening of Myanmar after decades of military rule is — and is not — changing life in the long-isolated Southeast Asian country.

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Two years into Thein Sein's four-year term, reform in Myanmar has taken on an enchanting momentum. Released from house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has a seat in parliament. The media censorship office is shut. Most Western sanctions have been lifted, and foreign investors are pouring into this once-shunned Southeast Asian nation, eager to build hotels and airports, drill for natural gas and sell cars, beer, soda, medical devices and cellphone connections.

Lost in this great forward movement is a reckoning with the past. For half a century, Myanmar was ruled by one of the most repressive governments in history. Torture was common. Thousands of political prisoners were jailed without fair trial. And a handful of men, both military and their friends, amassed fortunes, sometimes brutally and often dishonestly.

Myanmar's ongoing transformation has been largely managed from above, by some of the very men and institutions implicated in abuses. Many fear that dredging up the past could imperil reform. For now at least, silence seems the best way to shore up progress.

But pieces of the unresolved past are posing challenges to reform. The end of military rule, which held this multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation together with an iron fist, has unleashed sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Initially in remote Rakhine state, it spread last week to central Myanmar, where 40 people were killed halfway between the capital, Naypyitaw, and Mandalay. Elsewhere, cease-fires have been signed with most ethnic rebel groups, but a 17-year truce with the Kachin has broken down, reigniting hostilities.

San Zaw Htwe, the former student activist, doesn't want revenge. But he does want to fill in the blank spaces in Myanmar's history.

To fight the old regime, he forsook his family, his education and his prospects for a good job and marriage. His family was shunned by its neighbors. While others grew rich, he grew poor. His old school friends got fat. He stayed skinny. Today he has no wife, no children, a temporary job teaching art, a bad stomach, a persistent cough and ears that still trouble him after being boxed in the head too many times.

"Without confessing your wrongs, how can you do right?" San Zaw Htwe says. "There should be a situation to reveal the truth of what happened in the past. ... Mostly the responsibility is on the ones who ruled the country, Than Shwe and also Thein Sein."

But he knows that is unlikely to happen. The constitution rules out prosecution of former leaders. Than Shwe, whose two decades in power were marked by isolationist paranoia and brutality, remains untouchable. The government has made it clear that it intends to respect most contracts made by past regimes, even if they are unfavorable and perhaps unfair.

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