The Dictators: Part 1—The Rise of Ne Win

This is the first installment in the The Dictators series by The Irrawaddy that delves into the lives and careers of Burma’s two most infamous military chiefs and the cohorts that surrounded them.

For most of the past half-century, Burma has been ruled by the successive iron fists of two ruthless men—Ne Win and Than Shwe. Ne Win was a product of the first struggle for independence and the era of communist and socialist ideology. Than Shwe was a product of Ne Win’s authoritarian regime and failed socialist economic policies.

Suu Kyi and her comrades who have fought to bring democracy and human rights to Burma are all, or course, extremely knowledgeable regarding the background and actions of these two men who personally shaped the current military regime and its psychological mindset. Every calculation and decision the opposition makes must have at its foundation an awareness of this history, because it reveals Than Shwe and his fellow generals’ current propensities. And every Burma watcher, whether full-blown participant or armchair analyst, should also be familiar with the two dictators that have turned Burma into the country that it is—and is not—today.

Ne Win, whose given name was “Shu Maung,” was born in 1911 in the Prome District of Pegu Division, about 200 miles north of Rangoon, where he was raised in a middle class family and attended the National High School. As a youth, he had aspirations of becoming a physician, but his medical dreams were dashed when he didn’t perform well at University College in Rangoon. After dropping out of college, Ne Win remained in Rangoon and hung out with a group of student friends who spent time every day discussing how to liberate Burma from the British.

Along with U Nu, the president of the Rangoon University student union, and Aung San, the student union secretary, Ne Win became a member of the nationalist organization Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association).

In 1941, Aung San and Ne Win were among the 30 young men chosen to receive military training in Japan who became known as the “Thirty Comrades” and formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA).  Each if the Thirty Comrades chose a nom de guerre before returning to Burma. Aung San chose “Bo Tay Za,” and Shu Maung chose the nom de guerre “Bo Ne Win,” meaning “The Radiant Sun.”

Aung San, the undisputed leader of the independence movement, was assassinated by a rival in 1947, and when Burma regained its independence in 1948 U Nu was appointed prime minister. In March of that year, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) went underground and resorted to armed struggle in hopes of building a “Red Era” in Burma.

The first battle between government forces and the CPB broke out in Pegu, south of Rangoon, and the fighting soon spread to the communist stronghold in central Burma. At nearly the same time, ethnic Karen rebels began their armed effort to gain autonomy.

The fledgling Burmese army was in disarray and unable to maintain law and order—there were many desertions and the communist and ethnic insurgents outnumbered the government troops. When Gen Ne Win took over as army chief of staff in February 1949, he had barely 2,000 soldiers and Burma’s many young patriots thought the country was heading in a dangerous direction.

To make matters worse, new trouble was brewing in Burma’s far north. Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomingtang (KMT) troops from southern China had crossed the border into eastern Shan State following their defeat at the hands of the Chinese communists. These well-armed KMT troops, backed by the CIA, rose from a mere 200 in 1949 to 12,000 in 1952.

They set up bases along the border with Burma as far as Kengtung and Tachilek, and also built an air base in Mong Hsat where they received supplies and equipment transported by unidentified planes. Soon the KMT controlled the whole region east of the Salween River and fierce battles broke out between the ill-equipped Burmese forces and the Chinese intruders. Burma’s early military campaigns against the KMT, including “Operation Naga Naing” and “Operation Frost,” failed as the KMT’s superior firepower easily defeated the Burmese.

Despite its initial lack of manpower and resources, Ne Win had an ambitious plan to lead the armed forces. To begin with, he and his senior officers removed many of their colleagues, including senior Karen army officers, British sympathizers and officers not sufficiently loyal to the top general. Many young officers from Ne Win’s 4th Burma Rifles then took up the top posts in the army.

In 1951, the 40-year-old Ne Win held a meeting with his commanding officers at the War Office in Rangoon and asked them to transform the army into a professional fighting force that was properly trained and equipped to fight against the external KMT aggressor, the CPB and the ethnic insurgents.

Ne Win’s loyal officers initiated military reform as requested and turned the Burmese military into a formidable army. The reform plan included recruitment and training to expand the military, establishment of effective intelligence services, setting up defense institutions, drawing up military doctrines and arms procurement.

Ne Win and his senior officers also agreed at the time to set up an army psychological warfare department, with the aim of winning the hearts and minds of the population, insurgents and communist sympathizers. Officially founded in 1952, the Psychological Warfare Department was led by Lt-Col Ba Than.

The size of the Psychological Warfare Department steadily grew and the department took on many projects, including the establishment of the Defense Services Historical Research Institute and the sponsorship of many culture festivals, radio shows and leaflet distributions countrywide. It also launched a magazine, Myawaddy, to counter anti-government publications—Myawaddy has survived until present day and under the current regime has gone on to launch its own television programs as well.

Ne Win recruited former communists Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing to be part of the Psychological Warfare Department. Saw Oo was once a staunch follower of communist leader Thakin Than Tun, who led the “White Flag” faction of the CPB. In the early 1950s, he took up arms against the government but later surrendered.

Chit Hlaing believed in both Buddhist philosophy and Marxism, and was a faithful follower of Thakin Soe, who was the leader of the “Red Flag” faction of the CPB. He studied Marxist philosophy during the Japanese occupation and in the early 1950s traveled extensively in Europe, splitting his time between Paris and Moscow. Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing remained civilians, but Saw Oo’s position was equivalent to a lieutenant colonel in the army and Chit Hlaing’s position was equivalent to the rank of major.

In January 1952, Captain Ba Thaung, who led the mobile psychological warfare team, launched “Operation Liberator” in Kyaukse, where communist sympathizers and rebels roamed the surrounding area. During Ba Thaung’s two-month stay in the Kyaukse region, his team distributed thousands of propaganda leaflets and cartoons depicting the threat of widespread civil war and destabilization of the country. Official government records state that from 1952 to 1953, as many as 1,150,000 leaflets were distributed by the mobile psychological warfare team throughout Burma.

At the time Ba Thaung was in Kyaukse conducting Operation Liberator, a 20-year-old man who had matriculated from Kyaukse high school, and was now working as a postal clerk in nearby Meikhtila, enrolled in the Officers’ Training School (OTS) Intake 9. His colleagues recalled that this new recruit, the youngest of the OTS cadets in his class, would often be seen chewing betel nut, was rather dull and quiet and definitely not an outstanding cadet. His name was Than Shwe.

15 Responses to The Dictators: Part 1—The Rise of Ne Win

  1. Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force. It is not too late to put fear into the hearts of the junta!

  2. One should also remember that Thakin Than Tun, the founder of the CPB was actually the brother-in-law of Bogyoke Aung San.
    Other facts: the first Commander-in-Chief (before Gen, Ne Win) of the Burmese “Tatmadaw” was Smith-Dunn, an ethnic Karen and that the KNDO almost took over the country (at one point the central government and the Tatmadaw were confined to within 10 miles of Rangoon!)

    • To andamanaonge,
      Who married to whom, Bogyoke Aung San marrued Thakin Than Tun’s sisiter or Thakin Than Tun married Bogyoke’s sister? as you said they are brother-in-law. I think Bogyoke and Thakin married Daw Khin Kyi and her sisiter.

      • Yes, Thakin Than Tun married Daw Khin Kyi’s sister.
        I don’t think Bogyoke Aung San had a sister, but his older brother U Ba Win was assassinated together with him.
        By the way, Ne Win was briefly married to June Rose (Ratana Nat Mei) a direct descendant of the Burmese monarchy (Konbaung dynasty). He though that would give him a “royal legitimation” to rule Burma!

  3. Well I never would have believed that this would come out.
    This is exactly what we need.
    What happened to Democracy in Myanmar.
    Please be accurate and don’t take sides in delivery this report.
    There is always two sides to a story.
    Please be fair and tell us the truth as far as you can.
    Thank you so much.

    • Shu Maung’s father was a Chinaman. Shu Maung worked as a post office clerk. It was due to the wife of Thakin BaSein that Shu Maung by chance became part of the 30 comrades.
      This fact can be verified with the daughters of Thakin BaSein. It seems that ShuMaung’s background has been embellished.

  4. Is the “Ba Thaung” the renowned “Bomhu Ba Thaung a.k.a. Maung Thu Ta”, a Myanmar language and history scholar.

  5. Pegu (or in Burmese, ‘Bago’) is NOT south of Rangoon (or in Burmese, ‘Yangon’). BTW, the brother of Sino-Burmese Shu Maung (aka ‘Ne Win’) publicly declared that ‘they could be dogs but not Chinese’ after ‘Life’ magazine published an article about General Ne Win. He even showed to reporters and photographers his father’s ‘Burmese’ tattoos on his thighs to prove that they are Burmese to the core.

    Wonder who he meant by ‘they’. 😉

  6. Ne Win was a terrible dictator and ruined Burma’s economy.
    Nonetheless, he wasn’t the only person responsible for Burma’s misery. If the Brits (note that when they left, they left their colonies in a mess, see India/Pakistan, South Africa, Palestine, etc.) didn’t let their agents assassinate Aung San, Burma’s might very well be one of the better ASEAN countries. Further, the civil war in Burma was caused by the Brits making promises of independence to the Karen and others ethnic groups.
    Also, the article noted an interesting point that when Ne Win took over as Army Chief in 1949, he only had 2000 soldiers and the Burmese army was pretty much surrounded. This explains why as late as 1960, there was fighting with insurgents near Rangoon.

  7. “After the war ended, Burma was granted independence in January 1948, and the Karen, led by the KNU, attempted to co-exist peacefully with the Burman ethnic majority. Karen people held leading positions in both the government and the army. In the fall of 1948, the Burmese government, led by U Nu, began raising and arming irregular political militias known as Sitwundan. These militias were under the command of Major Gen. Ne Win and outside the control of the regular army. In January 1949, some of these militias went on a rampage through Karen communities.In late January 1949, the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Smith Dun, a Karen, was removed from office and imprisoned. He was replaced by the Burmese nationalist Ne Win.(Ref:Smith, Martin (1991). Burma – Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London and New Jersey: Zed Books. pp. 50–51,62–63,72–73,78–79,82–84,114–118,86,119.)”
    Aung Zaw might forget to mention the above important historical facts regarding to Karen.
    It shows how U nu and Ne win manipulate the start of bamanization as well as authoritative mind set. This the great fall of Burma after British offering independence due to bamanization of U nu ( faked Buddhism) and opportunistic Ne win. It also shows the irresponsibility of British upon dumping Karen , Arakanese and Mon ethnics.

    • Regarding to the final fighting between Bama Ne win army and KMT ( Chinese nationalist army) , the following information is extracted from the “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia Secret War in Burma: The KMT “

      “Although forgotten by the international press, the KMT guerrilla operations continued to create problems for both the Burmese and Chinese governments. When delegations from the Union of Burma and the People’s Republic of China met to resolve a border dispute in the summer of 1960, they also concluded a secret agreement for combined operations against the KMT base at Mong Pa Liao.(173) This base, with a runway capable of handling the largest transport aircraft, was defended by some ten thousand KMT troops entrenched in an elaborate fortifications complex. After weeks of heavy fighting, five thousand Burmese troops and three full People’s Liberation Army divisions, totaling 20,000 men, (174) finally overwhelmed the fortress on January 26, 1961. (175) While many of their hill tribe recruits fled into the mountains, the crack KMT units retreated across the Mekong River into northwestern Laos.”

      In history, fled-KMT from Yunnan province , supported by USA was initially for the intention to re-occupy mainland China from communist ruler, Chairman Moa, at that time with the setting up the military base in Burmese, Shan land. Later, KMT cultivated opium in Burma and traded it around the world for arms and wealth to make opium business base in Burma after failure to regaining mainland China.

      • It was lucky for Ne win that KMT , initially with 12,000 troop in Burma tried to re-occupied mainland China via Yunnan province from Burma instead of attacking all Burmese cities against Ne win’s small army.
        In history, British colony stirred up Burma into mess. Then, USA stirred up Burma with KMT again with the fear of communist domination all over the Asia.
        Let see now how the all English speaking persons will help or stir Burma for the sake of their own interests with favoring bama or Burmese ethics.

        In short, all Burmese ethnics were and are victims for others’ own interests (British, USA, Japan and China) , particularly for bama military thugs. We are now very eager to know what is the content of second Panglong agreement from DASSK. At the same time , we do not expect another part 3 dictator in Burma ( ne win, than shwe and then who ?) . I do not want “Aung Zaw” to be very very busy in Irrawady.

        • In order to prevent the birth of 3rd bama military dictator, Burma should not have army , like Japan and Vatican city. If there is any foreign invasion, British, USA and China will help Burma to fight those invasions for their own interests and sake. Burmese army, being not permitted to holding arms and guns should be only for the public servants in rescue (eg Nargic cyclone) and infra structure jobs in Burma. Each all Burmese ethnics should have their own ethnics’ police respectively in equal numbers to have power balance.

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