(Interview) – Colonel Saw Lwin (aka) Htay Aung, the joint-secretary of the Kayan New Land Party (KNLP), was freed under the recent presidential commutation order. He was held in Obo Prison in Mandalay. In 2007, Colonel Saw Lwin was arrested after the seizure of illegal weapons and goods and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Mizzima correspondent Kyaw Kha talks to him about the events leading to his arrest, and his views on peace talks and the new political atmosphere.
Question: Please tell us your age and position.
Answer: I’m 59 years old. I’m a joint secretary of the Kayan New Land Party. Regarding military rank, I’m a Colonel.
Q: How did your release come about, and did you have to sign any agreements?
A: I was released under the commutation. Even without the commutation, I would have been released from prison in the next year. None of us needed to sign pledges. But one thing I want to say is that there are many political prisoners in Obo Prison. They have not been released.
Q: Why were you arrested and sentenced to prison?
A: In brief, in Yamethin, there was a company operating a gold mine, which had a relationship with our party. The party central committee assigned me the task of inspecting the company, so I went to Yamethin. The night I arrived, the authorities led by the Yamethin Peace and Development Council chairman Ye Kyaw Khine arrested me. They arrested 11 people including me.
When they ransacked our place, they found two pistols and a Point 22 gun that we used to protect ourselves against robbers. They also found some chemicals used for producing gold. They had a grudge against me and beat me and arrested us.
Thirty-six hours after we were arrested, they passed the highest sentences in accordance with the former commander’s order. We didn’t have the right to defend ourselves. Another thing is that when the judge delivered the verdict against us, the judge did not make a balanced judgment; he just read a small piece of paper that contained the drafted verdict.
Q: The highest sentence? What do you mean?
A: Violation of section 19/f [having illegal weapons] can be sentenced up to three years in prison. We were sentenced to three years in prison under that act. Another thing is that violation of section 51 and section 53 of the Export-Import Act can be sentenced to at most seven years in prison. In Burma, most of the violators of that Act are usually sentenced to just three or four months; at most one year. But we were sentenced to [another] seven years in prison [under this act].
Q: When you were arrested, did they torture you?
A: When I was arrested, the township Peace and Development Council chairman Ye Kyaw Khine said that he was a township chief who had a close relationship with General Khin Maung Than and General Myint Hlaing, and he could do anything he liked.
They roped my hands to my back, and then they pushed to make me fall down. Then with their military boots, they trod on my face. They kicked me a lot, and my tooth fell out.
He [Ye Kyaw Khine] said that he was appointed township chief three months ago, but he did not get any bribes from our gold mine company. He said that we were disrespectful, and he tortured me. At that time, he was drunk. He tortured only me. He did not torture the other people.
Q: Were all of the 11 people [who were arrested] directly related to the case?
A: In fact, the affair regarding the weapons and chemicals, only our company’s official, Major Kyaw Lwin and Major Ye Aung, bear responsibility. Only they were related with that affair. The two of them signed the search warrant that the weapons and chemicals were related to only them. The remaining nine people were not related with the case. But, all of the 11 people were sentenced. Major Ye Aung died of depression in prison one year after he was arrested.
Q: You could read news journals in prison. What is your opinion of the new government’s actions?
A: To speak frankly, we need to seriously watch them. We will be able to trust it, only if bigger changes are brought about.
Q: What bigger changes? What do you mean?
A: I mean that for instance, talking about amnesty, the government needs to release all political prisoners unconditionally. Similarly, many prisoners who were sentenced via unfair legislation need to be released. The affairs regarding amending the Constitution need to be conducted as soon as possible for the sake of people. Talking about combating corruption, it must be combated effectively and we need transparency.
Q: Some armed groups are still holding peace talks with the government while other groups have agreed to cease-fires. We hear that your KNLP will hold peace talks.
A: It’s been only a short time since I was released, so I haven’t discussed that [with my party]. I will return to Loikaw and meet with the central committee. Honestly, we did not sign any cease-fire agreement with the government [in the past]. Although we urged the government to sign a cease-fire agreement, the government said there was no need to sign because we were gentlemen.
But later the government deceived people by saying that we had agreed to things that we did not agree to. The two points we agreed to were to stop fighting and to cooperate in regional development work.
In my opinion, to achieve genuine peace, under our country’s political circumstances, we need a genuine multi-party democratic system. Similarly, we need to build a genuine Union. The peace we establish must be peace that is widely accepted by the people. Otherwise, it cannot be a lasting peace.
Q: Now you are free. What are your plans?
A: Or country has not achieved democracy and the peace that our people want, so as a joint secretary of the Kayan New Land Party, I’ll try to achieve that. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest while we were in prison. I would like to meet with her.
Q: Now it’s the 64th anniversary of Burma’s Independence Day [January 4]. Do you think that the people of Burma have enjoyed any peace and freedom since we achieved independence?
A: Since the day Burma got independence, the people of Burma have not enjoyed the taste of independence [or freedom]. Our country lacks peace. We lost our human rights. We don’t have democracy. The citizens are below the poverty line. Now, it’s time to end these problems. I hope that all citizens will actively try to solve these problems.