Former Brig-Gen Aung Gyi, who was once known as “heir apparent” of late dictator Gen Ne Win, died of heart failure at his home in Rangoon’s Mayangone Township on Thursday. He was 94 years old.
The politician-turned-writer served in the Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw, since its formation as the Burma Independence Army in 1942 during the colonial period, and through parliamentary democracy up until the Revolutionary Council.
Born in Paungde Township, Pegu (Bago) Division, on Feb. 16, 1919, he became known as the “ill omen” of Burmese politics.
After getting involved in the “We Burman Association” led by the Thakhin activists in 1937, Aung Gyi later became a soldier in the newly-founded Tatmadaw. He was even an MP in the Burmese Parliament for a short time after independence was won from the British in 1948. He then started writing about the experiences of soldiers and the politics of Burma history.
Aung Gyi played a role in the caretaker government of 1958-60 led by Gen Ne Win. In his memoirs, “Saturday’s Son” published in 1974, U Nu, then prime minister of Burma, claimed that his handover of power was not voluntary but that a group of officers led by Brig Aung Gyi and Brig Maung Maung threatened him with a “straight military coup” should he refuse. However, Aung Gyi denied these allegations in subsequent interviews.
Aung Gyi was number two in the Revolutionary Council after Gen Ne Win staged a coup in 1962. He served as vice-chief of staff and Minister of Trade and Industry but was ousted on Feb. 8, 1963, after openly criticizing the country’s economic policies.
In 1962, Aung Gyi became chairman of the military’s Burma Economic Development Corporation (BEDC), which is now known as Union of Myanmar Economics holdings Co. Ltd. He led the BEDC, which originally aimed to support the army with extra income, during the caretaker government years. The BEDC has been directly involved with banking, shipping, livestock and breeding, construction projects and many joint ventures with foreign and domestic partners since its formation.
Aung Gyi played a significant role in the crackdown on anti-government student protests in 1962, and was accused of subsequently dynamiting the historic Student Union building.
Prior to the nationwide democracy uprising of 1988, he wrote several long open letters to his former boss Gen Ne Win. Aung Gyi strongly criticized the government’s Burmese Way to Socialism and warned of possible social unrest and uprisings.
The letters, which were widely distributed throughout the nation, called for reform, and gained the students’ support as his predictions proved correct with Burma facing nationwide uprisings. Nevertheless, his popularity did not last long because of his firm loyalty to Gen Ne Win and the military.
During the massacre of August 1988, Aung Gyi irritated those who came to listen to his speech by saying, “You must not offend the army—not even in your minds.” People were shocked and furious as troops had just killed thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the street.
Just before the military seized power in September 1988, Aung Gyi pledged to the public that, “I will kill myself if the Tatmadaw stages a coup again.” This time his foresight was mistaken as tanks filled the cities, killing hundreds of the students and activists. Yet Aung Gyi still remained loyal to Gen Ne Win and the armed forces.
He was sentenced to prison three times during Gen Ne Win’s rule, according to an interview given in his 80s. In addition, in 1993 he was sentenced to six months in jail for not paying a bill for eggs delivered to his famous chain of Burmese bakery shops.
The former brigadier-general founded the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Sept. 27, 1989, together with retired Gen Tin Oo, who remains a patron of the party, and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung Gyi became chairman of the NLD while Tin Oo served as vice-chairman and Suu Kyi took up the role of general-secretary. But Aung Gyi left the party after two months accusing Suu Kyi of being surrounded by communists. Instead he formed the Union National Democracy Party and stood in the 1990 election—his party winning one seat out of the 250 it contested.
During a trip to the United States in 1998, Aung Gyi gave an interview to Radio Free Asia in Washington that publicly criticized Suu Kyi for boycotting the 1993 National Convention which eventually drafted the military-back 2008 Constitution.
In 2011, he declared that the widely condemned document was not amendable in response to NLD plans to change certain undemocratic articles.
Aung Gyi leaves behind his wife Mu Mu Thein, four children and five grandchildren. The cremation of his body will be held on Saturday.
The Irrawaddy reporter Yan Pai contributed to this article.