The Doubly Disastrous Legacy of Ne Win

Ne Win, Burma’s former dictator was a family man who loved playing with his grandchildren. He was also a good employer, who thanked his chef after every meal. And before he passed away, he became a practitioner of Vipassana meditation, devoted to finding inner peace.

But what of the public life of this former general once warned protesters that when the army shoots, it shoots to hit? Wasn’t he far less compassionate when it came to calls for him to step down from power?

That may be true, but on the other hand, there was no mass exodus of Burmese citizens during his 26 years in power. Of course, there were some foreigners (i.e., Indians and Chinese who had spent generations in the country) who were expelled when he nationalized the economy, but that was done for all the right reasons.

Likewise, when he cancelled large banknotes, he was just trying to undermine insurgents, not hurt ordinary people. He may have brought the country’s economy to its knees, but that was certainly not his intention.

If all of this sounds more than a little far-fetched, that’s because these are the views of Ne Win’s grandsons, as expressed in a new book based on a series of interviews with a local journalist.

It should come as no surprise that Ne Win’s grandsons (who were recently released from prison, where they were serving a sentence for high treason related to an alleged plot to overthrow the military regime that succeeded their grandfather in power) would want to come to his defense. But unfortunately for them, their efforts to “set the record straight” are not likely to get much sympathy in a nation still bearing the scars of his brutal misrule.

Let’s be perfectly blunt: Ne Win’s decision to set the country on the path of military rule was an unmitigated disaster. He reduced the once prosperous nation to one of the world’s poorest, exacerbated ethnic and political divisions by waging all-out war on minorities and dissidents, and deprived generations of Burmese of hope by gutting the country’s education system.

But even if this new book gets the bigger picture completely wrong, it still provides some interesting behind-the-scenes insights, particularly about Ne Win’s relationship with the man who would one day become his worst enemy: Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

According to Aye Ne Win, one of the grandsons, Ne Win handpicked Than Shwe to become vice chief of staff (army) in 1985 after inviting him and another potential military leader (Myint Lwin, who subsequently became minister for construction) to his residence for dinner.

Even after 1988, when Ne Win was forced to step down following massive pro-democracy protests, he continued to wield influence over the newly formed State Law and Order Restoration Council. For instance, in the early 1990s, he advised the regime to pick either Gen Maung Aye (who retired as deputy senior-general in 2011) or Lt-Gen Tun Kyi (a former trade minister who was sacked in 1997) to fill a powerful position that had become vacant.

As the years passed, however, it became less clear how things stood between Ne Win and his successors, particularly Than Shwe. On weekends, he used to invite Maung Aye, Khin Nyunt (the regime’s feared intelligence chief) and other senior leaders to his home (called the “Royal House” in Burmese), but Than Shwe was always absent from these gatherings.

“We felt that as he was the head of the ruling council he would be extremely busy. And we didn’t want it to seem as if we were trying to influence [the regime],” explained Aye Ne Win, rather unconvincingly.

A more likely reason that Ne Win and Than Shwe never seemed to form a personal bond is the fact that the two men came from very different backgrounds. Ne Win came from a middle-class family, studied at Rangoon University until he was expelled for failing his exams, and later became one of the legendary “Thirty Comrades” who established Burma’s resistance army with Japanese help during WWII. When he was in power, he was a notorious womanizer who enjoyed gambling and mingling with leaders like Lee Kwan Yew, Suharto and Zhou Enlai in the region and beyond. He loved going to the West and often spent his holidays in Austria, Germany or London, all at government expense.

Than Shwe, on the other hand, came from peasant stock. He was born in Kyaukse, a town in Mandalay Division, and is believed to have received at most a 10th-grade education before becoming a postal clerk and then joining the army. He went on to study psychological warfare and believed in Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism,” but never placed much value on education: Unlike Ne Win, who sent his children abroad to study, Than Shwe didn’t take much interest in educating his own children, much less the millions of others deprived of learning under his rule.

A loyal soldier, Than Shwe rose steadily through the ranks, eventually becoming a regional commander in Shan State in the 1980s. At the time, he was still regarded as quite “clean”; it was only much later, once he was firmly entrenched in power, that he earned a reputation for fostering a culture of corruption that surpassed anything witnessed during the Ne Win years.

Whatever the reasons for their aloofness from each other, it came as a complete shock to most Burma observers when, in 2002, Than Shwe moved to neutralize the once all-powerful Ne Win clan once and for all.

In March of that year, three of Ne Win’s grandsons—Aye Ne Win, Kyaw Ne Win and Zwe Ne Win—and his son-in-law, Aye Zaw Win, were arrested at a Rangoon restaurant for allegedly plotting with a senior army officer to overthrow the ruling regime. As many as 100 civilians and army officers were implicated in the alleged coup plot and were thrown into prison (including family astrologer Aung Pwint Khaung, who in an interview included in the book claimed that in 1998, he successfully extended the life of the ailing Ne Win by four years).

Ne Win’s son-in-law and grandsons and other chief conspirators were charged with high treason and given life sentences. Ne Win and his favorite daughter, Dr. Sandar Win, were placed under house arrest.

According to former Maj-Gen Kyaw Win, the deputy head of military intelligence and Than Shwe loyalist who called a press briefing after the accused coup plotters were taken into custody, the grandsons wanted to seize power on March 27, Burma’s Armed Forces Day, but were foiled after Than Shwe was tipped off. But the real plan, Kyaw Win said years later, was to make Khin Nyunt the head of state—a twist in the plot that has never been reported.

Was all of this really just Than Shwe’s way of taking revenge against Ne Win for never inviting him to his personal residence? Or was it about establishing a new “royal” dynasty—something that the once humble Than Shwe clearly aspired to during his later years in power?

In any case, it appears that Burma’s new “king” did not have the full backing of his subordinates: It has recently been revealed that Maung Aye, Khin Nyunt and Col Tin Hlaing (then home affairs minister) all refused to sign Than Shwe’s order to detain Ne Win.

But in the end, the old dictator was placed under house arrest, and it was there that he died on Dec. 5, 2002. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated within 30 hours of passing away, following a ceremony attended by 20 or 30 close relatives (not including those in prison), and his ashes were scattered in the Rangoon River.

That is not the end of this whole sordid tale: In 2004, Khin Nyunt met a similar fate, and he and his family spent most of the next decade under house arrest. Than Shwe, meanwhile, has led a quiet life in his palatial residence in Naypyidaw since his retirement in 2011.

In the book, Aye Ne Win and the other two grandsons try to defend their grandfather’s legacy by saying that at least it was better than Than Shwe’s rule. But in the end, even they have to admit that it was Ne Win who put Than Shwe in power, and by so doing planted the seeds of his own—and the country’s—ruin.

10 Responses to The Doubly Disastrous Legacy of Ne Win

  1. Everyone can tell who put than shwe on the throne. Saw maung made huge mistake by promising the nation with democratically elected government. That mistake gave than shwe to climb up on the throne. Ne win and than shwe will remain the history as worst leaders of all time. What goes around will come around to than shwe and his family.

  2. In my view, evil is evil, who is lesser evil or who is bigger evil may not make much different. But Ne Win is thousand time worsen than Than Shwe.If some one want to restore honorable life for G Ne Win , they should wait next thounsan year, now is too soon to do.

  3. Maung Lu Aye ( Law ) R.A.S.U.1976

    Burmese Book lovers want to read Interesting Books about Late Dictator Ne Win, it is not Enough that his Grandsons Writings. There are a lot of Our Burmese Authors & Non-Burmese Writers who wrote about Ne Win and the Stories were Never ending.
    Than Win Hlaing ” The fall of Dictator Ne Win ” compare with Late Dr Maung Maung ” 1988 Burma’s Uprising ” is different. Both of them are good writers,but Dr Maung Maung, although I like his famous writings,his two volumes were Not openly revealed the Truth about Burma & 88 Burma’s Uprising. Though Dr Maung Maung had Gratitudes upon Ne Win as Most of the Generals & High Army Officers thankful to Ne Win as A Benefactor, Not to the Country.
    Although Ne Win and Than Shwe were not getting along, they are the Same beans from the Same Bin, Characters were the same. Oppressing, Crushing, Killing the Burmese Citizens, Monks were the same.
    At the Last hours of Ne Win,his Ashes were scattered in the Rangoon River as Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Ashes were scattered in Ganges River was Similar to Hindu Ritual and I’d doubt that ” Is he/Ne Win Hindu or Buddhist or Atheist ?

  4. A concise, but precise story of an unfortunate nation state: –

    called Burma or Myanmar.

    Aung Zaw got a really good writing style.

    You will get the message, without asking any historian about Burma/Myanmar.

    One despot, too many !

  5. We all know that his grandfather is a looser. Same like Than Shwe who had worked in a post office (Nay Win at Shwegondine PO). Lost a big bet in horse racing after jokey tricked him on betting the loosing horse (then he revenge by closing the horse races in Burma and went playing in Hong Kong). And put the horse trainer and jokeys in jail when he took over power.
    Like Than Shwe after screwing up other people’s life and stealing, before they die, become religious to clean the Karma. Hope they all rot in hell for many life.
    How’s about a house he bought in Switzerland with his friend’s name and when his friend died, the house when to his friend’s children ! LOL.
    Married to Khin May Than (an ex nurse) a thieve and a bitch same like their daughters.
    A real bastard and their decendents, we all know well who they are so shut up.

  6. A whole new meaning to the expression going postal since both Ne Win and Than Shwe happened to be former postal clerks with dire consequences to an entire nation.

    Ne Win got off lightly in the end despite his eventual fall from grace put out to grass by his own protégé. Than Shwe has done better still in this enlightened postmodern age. Faux socialism suited Ne Win, and the New World Order his predecessors. Has the leopard changed its spots? The more fool us if we fall for this good cop bad cop show complete with smoke and mirrors.

    As for the West they were comfortable with the staunchly anti-communist Ne Win and after a long hiatus where a certain Lady in distress featured prominently very happy to do business with the current incarnation of the consistently staunchly anti-communist military elite.

  7. Overall this is a good read. It would have been much better with intricate details about the tug of power between Ne Win’s supporters and opponents such as things like what prompted Than Shwe to order to kill protesters during the Saffron Revolution right in front of the world media.

    Think about this. Those soldiers did not hesitate a bit to kill in broad daylight and in front of thousand of cameras in Rangoon’s streets. Then think about their action in ethnic territories which are mostly out of camera range.

  8. “LOOK -’MA’ — NO HANDS!”
    “The day you take off your uniform, you are as good as dead ; just like your boss Gen Ne Win” – Daw Kyaing Kyaing (Than Shwe’s wife)
    Boy! You don’t have to worry; there are many ways to hold onto power without wearing a uniform (sic. status of Army Chief of Staff)
    ‘How to rule a nation state upon nominal retirement – a despot’s way’
    It is quite easy, boy !
    A shady deal is fixed to run a nominally civilian-run Cabinet by Burma’s former despot Sr Gen Than Shwe !
    How is the deal fixed ?
    Well, it is easy ! Just form a NDSC (National Defense & Security Council) sitting on top of the Cabinet (obscure & not known to the general public); no doubt Sr Gen Than Shwe is the Chairman!
    Then again, who is behind all this 969 stuff and and all this communal strife all across the state – which sets you thinking as:
    – The whole issue is planned with calculated moves for political gains
    – Religion is pushed up front to exploit majority Buddhist sentiments
    – The movement seems to have strong financial support
    – Killings, arson are ignored by the authorities
    – Old monsters stirring up trouble (ref: June 2, 2013: Sunday Times, Singapore)
    So, all these indicators point to: –
    “LOOK -’MA’ — NO HANDS!”
    No doubt about it !
    [Ref: “You guys (MI personnel sic Gen Kyaw Win), don’t you argue with me again– On who did it ! I did it ! So, what?” – Gen Than Shwe(on De-Pe-Yinn massacre) ]

  9. Flashbacks again..The past can be forgotten but not erased.It is the biggest Burmese memory of all time.

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