In his youth, when British-colonized Burma was struggling to restore its independence, Chit Hlaing worked with some of the country’s most famous leaders including national hero Gen Aung San as well as the less salubrious Gen Ne Win and Thakin Soe, who led the Red Flag faction.
Now in his early 80s, Chit Hlaing, himself an ex-Red Flag communist who translated several Marxist texts into Burmese, is still following the political intrigues of the nation. His mind remains razor-sharp and his past memories are still fresh.
As the author of the political bible of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP)—“The System of Correlation between Man and His Environment” simply known as Innya myinnya—Chit Hlaing worked alongside former dictator Ne Win throughout the 1960s, and remained close to later junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe during the 1990s.
The assignment to write Innya myinnya came directly from Ne Win and the two were in constant contact. Chit Hlaing worked closely with the former general throughout the 1950s and 1960s and was always ready to defend Ne Win as a pragmatist. Ne Win, a member of legendary “30 Comrades,” staged a military coup in March 1962 and introduced the “Burmese Way to Socialism” which turned out to be an unmitigated failure.
Ne Win recruited the Marxist Chit Hlaing as he needed to introduce a political ideology in the aftermath of his coup. Chit Hlaing joined the Defense Directorate of Psychological Warfare as a civilian military official with the same rank as lieutenant-colonel in 1955. In the 1970s, Chit Hlaing left the BSPP but still often met Ne Win whenever summoned by the general.
Ne Win resigned from politics in 1988 during the upheaval caused by nationwide democracy protests and has since devoted his time to reading books and studying Buddhism as well as practicing meditation.
Chit Hlaing, who speaks French and once studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in France, recalled his last meeting with Ne Win during an interview with The Irrawaddy. In July 1995, Chit Hlaing and former Judge Tin Aung Hein, a student activist who became a prominent member of the BSPP, visited Ne Win’s house.
Ne Win was alone in his residence—his wife Ni Ni Myint, a university professor of history, left for an appointment after preparing them some food—but he looked healthy and his mind was clear.
Chit Hlaing and Tin Aung Hein wanted to bring up the current state of political affairs in the country but were unable to do so since Ne Win did not want to discuss anything related to politics. They politely listened to the former dictator as he spoke about religion and Buddhism.
They were surprised when Ne Win confessed that he would not have staged the coup in 1962 if he had studied Buddhism and meditation earlier in life. Ne Win elaborated further if he had known Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta—the three Dharma aspects of life—at the time, he would not have seized power.
Chit Hlaing said the former general was no philosopher and always remained suspicious of people. Among the three leaders of Burma’s independence struggle who he knew best—Aung San, Ne Win and Thakin Soe—he respected Aung San most. “Aung San is just Aung San and there is no comparison,” said Chit Hlaing in his Rangoon residence.
In his farewell speech to an emergency congress held by the BSPP in 1988, Ne Win stunned the nation by saying that if the “disturbances” continued the “army would have to be called in and I would like to declare from here that if the army shoots it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It would shoot straight to hit.”
Ne Win was not issuing an empty threat. Troops gunned down several hundred peaceful demonstrators during the uprising. Chit Hlaing thought it was a moment when Ne Win was facing a real political crisis and lost control.
Some of those close to the dictator claimed that he kept books of Buddhism in his study to read and contemplate. In his meditation room, visitors claimed there was a sizable gold-plated banyan leaf on the wall. Did this brutal dictator reach Nirvana. Who knows?
Ne Win was placed under house arrest in 2002 accused of plotting to overthrow the military government, with his arrest finally ending decade-long speculation that he was still in control of the regime.
He was imprisoned at his lakeside villa—ironically just around the corner from where democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was similarly incarcerated—with only his favorite daughter, Sandar Win, for company.
Ne Win’s three grandsons and son-in-law were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Sandar Win was recently released from under house arrest along with her husband Aye Zaw Win and has since been seen around Rangoon. She used to own the Nawarat Hotel in the former capital and apparently plans to reopen it soon. One of their sons was also released but several alleged coup plotters remain behind bars.
Ne Win was a reclusive figure who was known to be superstitious and believe in the power of numbers. He once instructed that the national currency, the kyat, should be issued in denominations of 45 and 90 because they were divisible by his lucky number, nine.
Some said that he once asked a plane to circle his native hometown nine times while he rode a wooden horse onboard. Rumors abound that he once bathed in dolphins’ blood to regain his youth and his dedication to numerology was legendary.
But Ne Win was not the only Burmese tyrant with whom Chit Hlaing rubbed shoulders. In late 1950s, he also met a young army officer who came to study political science. This student would one day become Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
From the outset, Chit Hlaing thought that Than Shwe was more like a politician than an army officer.
Than Shwe was sent to study psychological warfare in Rangoon in 1958. He then became a teacher at the Central School of Political Science in Mingladon Township in Rangoon. Chit Hlaing often met Than Shwe at school or social gatherings and they would make sightseeing trips outside of Rangoon together.
He evaluated Than Shwe as a pragmatist who was more interested in politics than military affairs.
From 1957 to 1960, they met often and discussed Burmese politics. San Yu, then commander of Northern Regional Military Command and who served as Burmese president from 1981 to 1988, spotted Than Shwe’s potential and appointed him chief of the Psychological Warfare Department in Northern Region. Than Shwe was then a young captain.
Chit Hlaing said that Than Shwe, like many army officers in Burma, was always a virulent anti-communist. In the early 1990s, Chit Hlaing went to meet Than Shwe twice—in 1990 and 1992.
Than Shwe became head of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the highest political body in Burma, in 1992. He unexpectedly took over power from Snr-Gen Saw Maung in April of that year when the junta chief resigned citing health reasons.
Than Shwe did not reveal much at the time except to say that the current situation was a bit chaotic. He also offered Chit Hlaing some cash to publish books.
Chit Hlaing, who also used the pen name Ko Ko Maung Gyi, has since written several tomes. He usually sends his newly published work to colleagues, politicians, senior members of the ruling council and, of course, Than Shwe himself.
Last year, when he sent his latest memoirs to Than Shwe and other top leaders, he was told by officials in the Ministry of Information to address Than Shwe as “head-of-state” and Vice-Snr-Gen Maung Aye as “deputy head-of-state.”
“To Thein Sein?” asked Chit Hlaing of the instructions. “Of course, he is the president,” replied the official. “Are you sure about that?” Chit Hlaing insisted.
When asked whether he thinks Than Shwe is still pulling the string and remains in control as many Burma scholars believe, Chit Hlaing gave a wry smile. “Maybe he is still in remote control mode. Who knows?” he chuckled.