Rape, murder and the truth about the new Myanmar

The Guardian, March 9 2016

There is an old video clip which is famous in Myanmar. It shows a comedian on stage gesticulating with effervescent energy as his straight man challenges him to dance in different styles, first Indian, then Chinese and then… in the style of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the political arm of the hated military junta. Now suddenly, the comedian is all slippery slime, his hands reaching out to steal, picking imaginary pockets, grasping and grabbing and smirking at his own greed.

The camera cuts to the audience, beaming with delight, and then to a woman with long black hair who rocks forward in her seat laughing, politely raising her fingers to cover her mouth. In spite of the passing of 20 years since that video was shot in January 1996, the face is immediately recognisable. It is Aung Sang Suu Kyi, even then the leader of the country’s democracy movement.

For daring to make a laughing stock of the military elite (and for giving succour to Suu Kyi), that comedian four days later was arrested at dawn by officers of the military intelligence agency, the DDSI. So too were his straight man, two dancers and four musicians who had shared the stage with him. They spent two weeks under interrogation – being made to stand all night without sleep, then to squat in painful stress positions and to face endless questions under a bright light with an officer standing behind them slapping their ears whenever they failed to deliver the required reply.

The comedian was Par Par Lay, one of the few Burmese whose name became known outside his isolated country. He was the founder and leading light of a trio of vaudeville comedians – the Moustache Brothers – who had been playing regularly for tiny audiences which often consisted only of foreigners, particularly young back-packers, who spread the word about them, with a special boost from the Lonely Planet guide. On a makeshift stage in the garage at the front of their house in Mandalay, Par Par, his cousin Lu Zaw (the straight man who was arrested with him) and his younger brother Lu Maw relentlessly challenged the power of the ruling generals simply by making people laugh at them, often attracting police warnings, never going quiet.

The Moustache Brothers used to boast that they could deliver 300 jokes in two hours – some with a sharp political bite. Like the one about the man who goes to the doctor with a terrible head ache. He turns out to be a military intelligence office. “Ah, that explains it,” says the doctor. “You have no brain.” Or the one about the Burmese man who travels abroad to get his bad teeth treated. The foreign dentist asks him: “Don’t you have dentists in your country?” “Of course we do. But we’re not allowed to open our mouths.” George Orwell said: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”

Following their arrest in January 1996, while the musicians and dancers were released, Par Par and his cousin were sentenced to seven years’ hard labour for their jokey dancing. When their case was taken up by Amnesty International, with two million signatures on a petitition organised by the Body Shop, the two Moustache Brothers became an international symbol for the thousands of men and women who were incarcerated by a dictatorship that was typical among tyrannies for its corruption and cruelty but outstanding for its pompous self-regard. After more than five years in the generals’ jails, they were released, in July 2001.

Par Par is dead now, aged 66, in August 2013, from kidney failure, possibly as a result of his treatment in jail. But his cousin and his younger brother, Lu Maw, are still alive and still performing in the garage in Mandalay. Speaking to the Guardian in machine-gun bursts of self-taught English, Lu Maw recalled the prison life to which Par Par and his cousin were subjected: the days spent breaking stones with their ankles clamped apart with a metal bar; their nights on a mat on the ground; their bodies succumbing to malnutrition, malaria, dysentry, scabies; infractions punished by being forced to crawl like a crocodile across a plateau of jagged stones whose razor edges shredded the flesh that touched them. Par Par’s wife, Ma Win Ma, would travel four days by train for a 15-minute visit through a tight wire mesh, sometimes only to be met by the news that her visit had been cancelled. “This very cruel,” as Lu Maw succinctly put it.

Now Lu Maw and all those who fought or hated the junta find themselves in a world in which – almost unbelievably – Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has won a thumping majority in national elections, and the generals are apparently ready to cede power. Lu Maw does not trust them. He looks at the current president, Thein Sein, who claims to back democracy, and notes how this is a general who now wears a civilian suit, and he says: “Snake can shed skin. Is still snake.”

His suspicion has deep roots. In 1962, when the military seized power, they created a machinery of surveillance, designed to suppress not only people but even ideas which challenged them. The general who ran it – Khin Nyunt – became the most hated man in the country. In the name of restoring stability, the junta banned all rival parties and all trade unions and took total control of the police and the courts, routinely using the notorious Section Five of the Emergency Provisions Act, a law so vaguely worded that it was known as the ‘Don’t Like the Look of You’ law, because that was all it took to jail you. So, the two Moustache Brothers were among some ten thousand men and women who were sent to the Asiatic Gulag. Some of them were severely tortured and crammed into tiny kennel-like cages. Aung Sang Su Kyi famously was held under house arrest for years. From time to time, with extraordinary bravery, opponents would take to the streets. And soldiers would shoot them down – thousands of them.

Attacking the freedom to speak or even to think, Khin Nyunt’s military intelligence ran informers in every neighbourhood. There are countless stories of citizens seized for an off-colour remark or even a reference to democracy. Every household had to submit a ‘family list’ of all who lived there and to report any visitor so that everybody’s movements could be tracked. There were no religious rites nor public meetings without official permission. Not even a Buddhist monk could be ordained without official blessing. The Department of Press Registration and Scrutiny filleted every word that was published or broadcast. The Committee for Propaganda and Agitation pumped out official messages.

And all the while, the people became poorer. At worst, they were commandeered at gunpoint as slave labour to build new roads and bridges. At best, they worked for wages so meagre that the country eventually found their GDP per head falling below that of their war-torn neighbours in Cambodia or Laos. Meanwhile the generals became richer, creating two military holding companies which exploited lucrative monopolies in car imports and petrol, beer and whisky, cigarettes and edible oils. At every level, the military hierarchy rented out its power, demanding official consents for every conceivable activity and then charging fees to grant them. While their people still live in bamboo huts, the generals enjoy splendid detached mansions in the Golden Valley area of Yangon. When the daughter of one of the dictators, Than Shwe, got married, a leaked video revealed her wearing rows of diamonds wrapped around her neck like a shawl.

Now, we are told, all this has changed. In Yangon, there are diplomats and corporate advisers who say that the generals no longer want to run the country, that they produced a new constitution in 2008 because they genuinely want to move to a democratic system, that the quasi-civilian government which they have been running since March 2011 has made significant changes and that from next month they will allow Suu Kyi’s NLD to exercise real political power. Against them, there are exile groups and NGOs who agree with Lu Maw, who say these generals are merely conjuring up the appearance of democracy in order to persuade the West to lift its sanctions and send in its corporate investors, while all the time they still control the most important levers of power, beckoning westwards with one hand while still throttling dissent with the other. At heart the question is whether a ruthless and wealthy elite really would abandon its own power.

The beginnings of the answer emerge in a small village in the remote mountains of eastern Myanmar. Here, one night in January 2015, there was an incident which was to become notorious in this country.


The old lady remembers that night very well. Sitting now in the sunshine outside the village church, huddled down in a plastic chair, she whispers first that she is worried about speaking but then she talks quietly and quickly about how she went to bed as usual that evening and read her bible for a while before falling asleep, and then how she was woken an hour or two later by her house-guest, Myo Tin, whispering to her: “Did you hear somebody screaming?”

She recalls that together they listened for a while to the silence, and then they both heard a terrible cry: it sounded like the last gasp of somebody dying, she says. It was some time between eleven o’clock and midnight, she thinks, and they decided they must go out into the darkness to see what was happening. Myo Tin’s wife – the old lady’s niece – had heard the same sounds and she came with them.

The village of Kawng Kha is only small – fewer than 30 little bamboo houses, most of them clustered on the lower flank of a hill which slopes from a country road down through banana plants and jackfruit trees to a dusty square where sometimes the men play ball games. There is crude bare-wire electricity in the houses, but there are no street lights, and the old lady says they were nervous as they went out that night, she with a flashlight, the three of them padding down into the square, past the stone memorial to the founders of the village, past the little house on their right where two teachers were living, down to the church at the far end of the square where they flashed their light and saw nothing.

They turned back to the teachers’ house, where she and Myo Tin took it in turns to knock gently, she calling out “Teachers, teachers” and feeling frightened when her voice echoed weirdly off the mountain that looks down on the village. Whether through fear or good judgement, she says that they all decided maybe nothing was wrong, maybe the teachers were just sleeping deeply because they had been cutting sugar cane in the fields during the day, that all they had heard was a child crying, so they went home to try to sleep.

Sitting in a chair beside her now, Nang Seng, a middle-aged woman with traditional pale yellow thanaka make-up streaked across her cheeks, remembers equally well what happened the next morning. She lives at the bottom of the slope, within sight of the teachers’ house, and she remembers how she always used to wave to them each morning as they walked up the hill to the school building. But on this day, she noticed that it was already nine o’clock and she still had not seen them. And she realised there was no smoke from the little kitchen at the end of the their house. This was certainly strange. She decided to go and have a look.

Nang Seng says she pushed open the teachers’ flimsy front door and went into the main room with its bare soil floor, saw no sign of the two young women, pushed on into the second room where the two of them always slept side by side on a bamboo platform and, at first, all she could see was blankets in messy piles, but she lifted the corner of the one nearest her and found herself looking at the face of Nan Tsin, the cheerful young teacher who would always smile at her in the morning, her features and black hair now stained red with her own blood, her body still.

“I could not look any more,” she says. “I came back out of the house and when I got outside I just fell down on my knees and started crying and shouted ‘Come! Come!’ and others from the village came running from all sides, from the fields and from the houses. At the time, I did not understand what had happened. Nothing like that had ever happened in our village. It was a peaceful place.”

It took hours for the police to arrive. Finally, they admitted that they were scared of being attacked on the road by one of the armed groups who for years have been intermittently at war with the Burmese army. There is fighting like this in many of the rural areas: ethnic minority groups challenging the dominant Burmans. Over on the West coast, egged on by vicious Buddist nationalists, local Burmans and their army have persecuted, beaten and murdered Muslim Rohingyas, who have fled in their tens of thousands.

Here, in northern Shan state, the people are Kachin. The Kachin Independence Army is the biggest of several groups who are fighting here for the right to speak their own language and to run their own affairs but also to stop the plundering greed of army officers and their cronies who have stolen tens of thousands of acres of farmland for their own commercial projects and seized a fortune in jade and gold and rubies for their companies. Unlike the Buddhist Burmans, most Kachins are Christian, courtesy of nineteen century baptist missionaries. Around the doorway of the teachers’ house, there are still some chalked words wishing for a happy Christmas for December 2014, the month before they died. And they died hard.

One of the villagers went to fetch the nervous police officers, who then shot video of the crime scene. Seen by the Guardian, it reveals a vision of pure hatred. There they lie, the two young Christian women who had come to this village unpaid to try to give the children a way out of poverty – Nan Tsin, then 21, with her friend Lu Ra, then 20. It is not just that the sexual assault is so evident from the way their clothes have been torn away, nor even that the bloodied three-foot log which lies beside them reveals how the life was finally battered from them; it is the gouging and the slice marks which register the hate. Somebody used a knife with a double-sided blade on those women, worked it deep into the back of a shoulder, the top of a hand, even into their faces, not to kill but to inflict heart-breaking pain, submission. In the corner of the sleeping platform, a bright orange teddy bear sits staring blankly at the scene.

The video catches the faces of the police – sombre, disgusted – as they inspect the scene. The villagers say that they believed the senior officer when he swore to them that morning that he would catch the men who had done this. But he did not. And that is why this story has become notorious. Because the villagers were not alone in their homes on the night of January 19th 2015. Earlier that day, a group of soldiers had shown up – a major and two or three dozen men from Light Infantry Battalion 503. They had invited themselves as guests into four of the houses which stand along the side of the road and then set about patrolling in the near-by hills and around the village, apparently keen to protect a supply lorry that was due to come through.

Nang Seng says the two teachers were frightened of the soldiers. Wherever there has been fighting, there have been reports of atrocities committed by the Burmese army – burning villages, using prisoners as human minesweepers or as forced labour. Women in the ethnic areas have learned to be particularly afraid.

Two months before the teachers died, the Women’s League of Burma reported “systematic and widespread use of sexual violence by the Burma Army.” In that same year, a UN special rapporteur on human rights recorded allegations that more than 100 women and young girls had been raped by soldiers in the previous three years, including 47 cases of gang rape. Twenty eight of the women were said to have died from their injuries. Nang Seng says that soldiers had stayed in the village twice since the teachers arrived there in May 2014 and that both times the two young women had come to sleep in her house where they felt safer. But this time they were organising a birthday party for a four-year-old girl and did not leave until 10pm, by which time Nang Seng was asleep, and so they went alone to their own house.

The week after the murders, with the Burmese newspapers covering the crime and Kachin leaders openly blaming the soldiers, the government released a statement: “In accordance with the findings of the police force on the ground and those of the collective investigation team, it is analysed and acknowledged that the army personnel are not culprits. However, while investigations were being done, the army was accused with prejudice. At the time when the perpetrators can be identified, legal action will be taken against those who mistakenly wrote about the army.”

However, interviews with the villagers (who have ignored the threat implicit in that official announcement) and statements collected by the police themselves tell a different story. It begins with the old lady in the middle of the night.

Her house, where she and Myo Tin and his wife all heard the screams, is about half way between the teachers’ house and the road. Further up the slope right next to the road – a good 130 yards from the teachers – another household also heard the teachers dying: these people say they could also hear the sound of beating. There were several dozen soldiers in the village that night – men who were supposed to be alert to the possibility of attack by an armed group. Not one of them has admitted hearing anything. Indeed, when the old lady went out into the darkness, there were no soldiers anywhere to be seen. Suddenly, there were no patrols.

The police video shows that the two teachers were not tied down. Even with the threat of horrible violence, this attack must have involved at least four men, to hold them and to assault them. They must have moved to and from their victims’ house. Either every soldier somehow managed to hear and see nothing; or they heard and saw but chose to ignore the signs of crime, possibly because it was their own comrades who were committing it.

There is similar circumstantial evidence about the morning, when Nang Seng fell weeping to her knees. She shouted for help, and villagers came from all sides. But not a single soldier reacted. The village administrator, Zingtung La, a small handsome 36-year-old, says that on other occasions when soldiers have stayed in the village, they have come to the church square to investigate just because some of the men were playing ball games. Either the soldiers all failed to hear what so many villagers did hear; or they heard and understood exactly what the crying meant and knew that they did not want to react.

There is some physical evidence. The police video closes in on a pile of logs about 20 yards from the teachers’ house, evidently the source for the log which was used to kill. On the ground, in front of the pile, there are small sprayed white circles, recording footmarks in the soil – not the plastic flipflops of villagers, but the prints of heavy boots. The villagers say there were more bootmarks through the sugar cane field that leads from the back of the teachers’ house up on to the road where the soldiers were billeted, maybe as many as eight men. Two months later, a local man who went into the field to shoot birds found an army jacket discarded there. The villagers also found and handed in an army knife: it has a double-sided blade.

And there are two witnesses who may be important, two women who separately say that from their homes at about six in the morning – some three hours before the murders were discovered – two army vehicles stopped on the road and drove away a group of soldiers, eight to ten of them. By the time the police arrived, they were all long gone. The military say there was only one vehicle, that it took three of the soldiers away to play in a football match.

While this circumstantial and physical evidence is not enough to identify any individuals, it clearly suggests that soldiers are the prime suspects. By contrast there is nothing to point to any non-military suspect. The police searched some of the village homes but failed to find clothing that must have been blood-stained during the attack. The villagers point out that if any group of local men had decided to gang rape the two teachers they could have picked any night of the year to do so and surely not one when a battalion of armed and hostile soldiers were lodged there. The men who raped those women without gagging their screams, who beat them to death in a bamboo house whose walls are so thin that the sunlight pours through them, acted with a telling confidence that none of the several dozen soldiers in the village would interfere.

And then there are the interviews conducted by the police. In dealing with the villagers, the police had been prepared to be harsh. Baptist ministers who work in the area say that two young men admitted that they had spent the evening buying drugs and getting stoned and that this provoked the police into treating them as suspects, forcing them to stay awake all night in the local police station, trying (and failing) to persuade them to admit the murders. However, the formal statements which police took from the soldiers – seen by the Guardian – show a very different approach.

There is no sign of any soldier being asked a single question which would help to solve the crime – nothing about their failure to hear or to react to the screams at night or to the furore in the morning, no demand to describe each other’s movements or to explain what happened to the night patrols. Instead, they are asked about their family, their school career, the recent movements of their battalion and how they heard of the murders. And there is something odd about their answers: they are strikingly similar, using exactly the same details, the same timings, even using the same words.

Repeatedly, for example, almost all of them remember first hearing of the murders with precisely the same wording “at 9.45 from anonymous villagers.” And then it becomes clear that it is not just a few details and the occasional phrase which are recurring: in some cases, the police have cut and pasted whole statements from one man to another. Two sergeants and a corporal, for example, are solemnly recorded delivering precisely the same answers. Verbatim. Four privates similarly are credited with exact replicas of each other’s memories, amended only to record the differences in the number of their siblings and the names of their schools. This was the investigation which officially concluded that no army personnel were involved in the crime.

Finally, there is the DNA. The police video shows finger prints, blood and hair at the scene. Villagers also say that they saw clear traces of semen when they looked into the room. The Kachin Baptist Convention, which recruited the two teachers, ended up running their own parallel inquiry. Their leaders say the police agree that they collected samples at the scene but that they have told them variously that all of the finger prints, blood and hair belonged to the two dead women, and that any other DNA was lost or spoiled before it could be tested.

The point here is not simply that no reasonable police force could possibly have exonerated all the soldiers. More than that, the evidence invites a political conclusion, that whatever else may have changed, the military in Myanmar still have enough power to allow them to get away with murder.

He is 76 years old now. He steps carefully along the narrow path that runs through his garden, a lunghi robe wrapped roughly around his legs, scruffy plastic sandals on his feet. In the years since he lost power, certainly he has changed, but recognisably this is the man who ran the machine which so oppressed this country. This is Khin Nyunt.

It is one small paradox in the big puzzle of Myanmar that the general who ran the secret police has now opened his own private garden in Yangon to the public, with an art gallery, a cafe and a souvenir shop. This is the third day that my translator and I have sat here, waiting for a sight of him. Now, without protest, he agrees to sit with us, to consider whether Myanmar’s elite really is willing to abandon its own power.

He is well placed to answer, not just because he comes from within the belly of the beast, but because he personally embodies the contradiction at the heart of the question. It was this man – who was involved in ordering the shooting of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, who sent Par Par Lay and thousands of others to jail for daring to question the regime – it was he who was the first of the generals to argue that they must start to dismantle their dictatorship. In 2003, the then president, General Than Shwe, made him his prime minister. By that time, he was already working on what he called a Roadmap to Democracy, a seven-step plan to deliver a new constitution and free elections.

He is not claiming that he or any other general experienced some sudden moral conversion. Instead, he acknowledges the harsh political fact that the dictatorship was failing as a government. The failure was at its worst in the economy: “Our country was poor. The economy was bad. The Western countries didn’t like the military ruling here, so we didn’t get investment. Only if we practised democracy could the country develop.” It was failing too in its foreign relations, pushed into an alliance with the country it trusted least. “We had to rely on China, who gave us a little but always took too much for themselves.”

If the military elite were interested in democracy, it was a purely pragmatic move. Like Gorbachev in Moscow or De Klerk in Johannesburg, Khin Nyunt urged the generals to negotiate reform because their dictatorship was collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

The generals demanded order but generated a social system so riddled with corruption and networks of competing cronies that any policy dictated from the centre was likely to fail unless it was propelled by bribes and powerful allies. They seized all power and thus excluded those who knew best how to use it, which is why they ran the economy into the ground: they knew no better. At its craziest, this government by ignorance saw the first dictator, Ne Win, suddenly wiping out people’s savings by decreeing that three denominations of bank notes were no longer valid and then producing new denominations in multiples of nine because that was his lucky number. Above all, they ruled by inflicting fear and, thanks to the endless bravery of their opponents, they ended up fearing rebellion, watching with real anxiety as their opposite numbers in Eastern Europe were ousted and sometimes killed by those they had oppressed.

Khin Nyunt reflects that his own plan to end the dictatorship was itself ended by the dictator, Than Shwe. “In 2003, he made me prime minister,” he says. “In 2004, he had me arrested.” He was sentenced to 44 years in prison for corruption. He says he was the victim of rumours – another irony, since his own officers had arrested so many on nothing more than a bad word from a neighbour. Spared the harsh regime which was inflicted on those whom he had jailed, he spent more than seven years under house arrest before being released as part of a wider amnesty in January 2012.

Perhaps it is because of this experience that he now claims to have a genuine commitment to political freedom. In an astonishing couple of minutes, he looks back at his own hardline behaviour and regrets it: “I had a different opinion then of what was happening, and we ended up shooting people. But I see now that that was bad. It was a mistake to shoot people.” Now, this former enemy of democracy not only insists that he is happy with the result of last year’s election – “I want to say openly and frankly that I am very pleased that the NLD won a landslide victory” – he goes further and makes a claim which would have beggared Par Par Lay’s belief. He announces with an enormous grin that he personally voted for the NLD. He invokes the name of Suu Kyi’s father, Aung Sang, who led the country’s independence movement. “In the beginning I thought she was not mature enough. Now, I think that if she leads the country, she will maintain the good name of her father.”

The ruling generals may not all share that view, but there is some evidence that their pragmatism is driving them to surrender some of their own power. The quasi-civilian government which they established in March 2011 has allowed the NLD to win a fair election and – so far – it has honoured the result. More important, it has significantly reduced the earning power of the military by breaking up their lucrative monopolies and also scrapping the tax exemptions which had earned their holding companies a second fortune. And perhaps most significant of all, it has broken up Khin Nyunt’s machinery of surveillance.

The network of informers has been rolled back. People can move without being tracked, speak without being arrested. The whole system of censorship was scrapped in August 2012. In the same year, the government legalised trade unions, allowing union leaders to return from their long exile in Thailand and to establish a new Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar. Its officials say that they are no longer being harassed, that they now have 680 affiliates and a track record of solving disputes with employers often with the support of the new Ministry of Labour. They have also established a new national minimum wage, enforced by law. This is more than just a dictatorship pretending to be democratic. There is real change here. And yet….

The death of those two teachers is not the only sign that the military snake is still poisonous. From the outset, their 2008 constitution was riddled with compromise, explicitly designed to protect their core power. The head of the army is allowed to appoint generals to run three key ministries – defence, home affairs and border affairs – leaving them in charge of all armed forces and the police, all beyond effective civilian influence. The military’s party are granted 25% of the seats in both houses of the new assembly, all unelected and enough to block any change to their constitution, which needs a vote of more than 75%. They can also control six of the eleven seats on a National Defence and Security Council which has enormous potential power should they choose to use it. And, just in case any new government looks too closely at their history, their constitution gives all military personnel impunity for crimes committed in the line of duty.

Their reforms are significant, yet always the military core remains untouched. Their companies may no longer be monopolies, but their history means they are still absolutely dominant in their markets. The military budget may now lie in the gift of the national assembly but so far it has risen each year since 2011, still swallowing 13.2% of total state spending, compared to 7% for education and only 4% for health. The machinery of censorship has gone, but journalists know there are still red lines which they cross at their peril. When Unity Journal in July 2014 reported that a secret military base was producing chemical weapons, its chief executive, editor and three reporters were jailed for ten years with hard labour. A freelance journalist, Aung Kyaw Naing, was detained by security forces in a conflict zone in September 2014. Two months later, he was dead with a fractured skull, a broken jaw and smashed teeth. The army said he had been shot while trying to escape.

While hundreds of political prisoners have been released, the generals continue to display a surly intolerance to those who challenge them. Echoing the harassment of the Moustache Brothers, the last 12 months have seen people locked up for using Facebook to make jokes comparing the colour of the new army uniform to Suu Kyi’s robe or about the president’s face being tatooed on a poet’s penis. There are clear patterns of political suppression.

In August 2015, the UN special rapporteur complained of “increased intimidation and harassment by security personnel and state agents (and) the continuing arrests and convictions of civil society actors – including students, political activists, workers, union leaders, farmers and community organisers – exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.” The leaders of the peasant’s union, of the national students union and of a radical pressure group for democratic change have all been hauled off to jail along with a lawyer acting for farmers whose land has been seized by the military and a particularly brave monk, U Gambira, who was among the leaders of the huge Saffron Revolution protests in 2007.

And in the rural areas, the Burmese army remains embroiled in the longest running civil war in the world, still resorting to burning villages, still rejecting the demands of ethnic groups for some degree of independence. Some of their senior officers are also embroiled in delivering the second biggest supply of heroin in the world, having cut deals with war lords who now run their own territories as highly weaponised criminal empires. In the run-up to last November’s election, the government announced a national ceasefire, but most of the major ethnic groups did not sign, and NGOs on the ground say that the fighting is now worse than before the ceasefire.

All this leaves Suu Kyi in the most difficult position. She inherits the mass of problems bequeathed by the governing incompetence of the military and yet she knows that if she pursues any solution which crosses one of their red lines, the snake may bite her.

So will she succeed? Will the army stay in their barracks? Maybe this was the most significant moment in the brief encounter with Khin Nyunt. It would have been so easy for him to say that the military had learned their lesson and would never again seize power. But instead, he said: “I am not a prophet. I can’t tell the future.”

*Additional reporting by Poppy McPherson

UPDATE: Violence against the Muslim Rohingyas in the west of the country increased dramatically in 2017 as the Burmese military and violent local Buddhists were reported to have killed thousands of men, women and children and to have driven an estimated 500,000 over the border into refugee camps in Bangladesh. Aung Sang Suu Kyi was widely condemned for failing to oppose the violence. It was not clear whether she was constrained by the political power of the military or whether she silently supported their campaign against the Rohingyas. Similar military violence continued unabated in other minority ethnic areas, including in Shan state where police still took no action at all against the soldiers suspected of raping and murdering the two teachers.