The Dictators: Part 2—Ne Win Tightens his Grip


This is the second 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.

On what was probably a rainy day in July 1953, Second Lieutenant Than Shwe began serving in the Light Infantry Division No. 1. He traveled to Karen and Shan states and fought against ethnic insurgents, and while several officers confirmed that Than Shwe was a battle-shy officer, over the next five years he managed to rise to the rank of captain.

Then in February 1958, Than Shwe received an order to come to Rangoon, where his new assignment was to study at the Psychological Warfare Department with Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing as his new bosses.

Meanwhile, while attending their annual meeting in Meikhtila in 1956, the Burmese army’s commanding officers learned that Ne Win had a plan to set up a new government and it was just a matter of time before a coup occurred.

Ne Win didn’t believe in either socialism or Buddhism, but he wanted to have a political ideology and doctrine to lead and steer the country once he took over state power. He relied heavily on Ba Than, Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing to develop military doctrine and socialist ideology, and he and his trusted colleagues believed that socialism was the best ideology to introduce to the country.

Ne Win told Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing, however, that he didn’t want to repeat the blunder of Burmese communists who blindly copied Marxist ideology and followed it dogmatically. He also didn’t want to follow former Prime Minister U Nu, who wanted to introduce Buddhism as the country’s official religion.

But since most of the Burmese people were Buddhist, he wanted to make sure Buddhist philosophy would be included in the new political ideology. So Ne Win requested that Chit Hlaing and Saw Oo prepare a socialist ideology that incorporated Buddhist tenets and could be adapted to Burmese culture and society. The eventual result was the middle path introduced by Saw Oo in the “Burmese Way to Socialism.”

The young Capt Than Shwe reportedly got along well with Saw Oo and was soon sent to Mandalay to become head of the division-level Psychological Warfare Department. Burma then had two commands: north and south. In 1959, Ne Win’s protégé Col San Yu became commander of the Northern Command where Than Shwe was posted, and Chit Hlaing recalled that Than Shwe served under San Yu and had direct communication with his boss.

In March 1962, General Ne Win followed through with his earlier plan and overthrew U Nu’s government in a military coup. Then in July, Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council announced the formation of the BSPP, whose members were none other than Ne Win and his loyal army officers.

The following year, San Yu sent Than Shwe back to the newly opened Central School of Political Science, which in 1971 was upgraded to become an institute, in Mingaladon, a suburb of Rangoon. And in December 1963, Than Shwe reported back to his former bosses Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing, who were now posted at the school.

Than Shwe was named chief of the Political History Department, and his duty was to teach new cadres political history and the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” At the time, the doctrine was known as Nama-Rupa—nāma refers to the psychological elements of a human being and rūpa refers to the physical. The Buddhist nāma and rūpa are mutually dependent and not separable: as nāmarūpa, they designate an individual being.

Than Shwe taught classes every morning, and Chit Hlaing observed that the young captain had not changed much from his OTS days—his students sometimes found it quite awkward to have a conversation with him. But despite the fact that Than Shwe rarely voiced his political inclinations, Chit Hlaing believed he was pragmatic, patriotic and a faithful follower of the “Burmese Way to Socialism.”

Than Shwe normally refrained from rocking the boat, but he voiced a desire to go back to the infantry division where he would have a better opportunity for rapid promotion to a powerful position. His wish was fulfilled in January 1969, when he became a major and was assigned to the 77th Light Infantry Division in Karen State. As part of his new assignment, Than Shwe traveled to the Irrawaddy Delta, Pegu Yoma, Karen State and Mon State.

In Mon State, Than Shwe met his beloved wife Kyaing Kyaing and instantly fell in love. She was the second youngest of 11 siblings; her father Kyuu Tin was pure Chinese and her mother Daw Bwa May was Pa-O. Bwa May didn’t know the young officer, but after using her sources in the War Office to check his background, she gave the green light for Than Shwe to marry her daughter.

In December 1969, Than Shwe was summoned back to Rangoon to work in the War Office, where he was promoted to major at level G2 and given responsibility for managing operations in the Irrawaddy Delta and Arakan State. At that time, the military launched the Shwe Linn Yone, or “Golden Eagle Operation,” to flush out insurgents in the delta and cut the rebel link between the delta and Arakan State.

Than Shwe and the other G2 officers in the War Office had more mundane, but still intriguing, responsibilities at the time as well. The mild-mannered San Yu was hard working but paranoid, and wanted the G2 officers to read letters coming from the frontline and military families and keep watch for poisoned mail. San Yu sometimes instructed the officers to investigate suspicious letters, even sending them to army battalions and frontline zones to do so.

In the 1970s, although Ne Win still enjoyed strong backing in the armed forces, his popularity plummeted among the public and there was unrest on the streets of Rangoon between 1974 and 1976, first due to labor disputes and then triggered by the death of U Thant, the retired Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Ne Win and U Thant lived in different worlds—Ne Win was a college dropout and army hero who launched a military coup; the respected diplomat was once a teacher and served under former Prime Minister U Nu, who Ne Win removed. One time when U Thant returned home from his New York office, Ne Win refused to meet him, and when Gen Tin Oo met U Thant and instantly admired him, Ne Win was reportedly furious.

When U Thant died in New York in 1974 and his body was flown back to Burma to be buried, Ne Win refused to hold a state funeral for him. There were even hints by government authorities that it was illegal to bring the body back to Burma and the government might take action against the family members of U Thant if they attempted to do so. Finally, however, the government agreed to bury U Thant in a private cemetery.

Students were upset and took U Thant’s coffin to Rangoon University. In an event that quickly became an anti-government gathering, they demanded he be honored in a dignified manner. Finally, the government agreed to build a mausoleum at the foot of Shwedagon Pagoda, where several prominent leaders, including Aung Sanand his slain cabinet members, were buried.

But a radical student faction refused this gesture and decided to bury U Thant’s body on campus at the site of the demolished student union building. But more turmoil was just around the corner.


13 Responses to The Dictators: Part 2—Ne Win Tightens his Grip

  1. I thought Than Shwe married his friend’s wife. Him and his friend were fighting in the front line and his friend got killed.

  2. If this is not a book already, it should be – but you need to footnote every single sentence as to where you got the information.

    This is U Chit Hlaing (Ko Ko Maung) right? UCH occasionally taught us French Grammar at Alliance Francaise in Rangoon, including on 7th July 1972, the day of the shooting.

    He almost had a nervous breakdown on the podium. “They’re going to shoot, they’re going to shoot.” We students all went home – only next day I found out what had happened.

    The memorable class is described in my upcoming novel Wolf.

    If you got the info. from UCH, he is hardly an unbiased witness.

    You don’t want to be accused of whitewashing the story, do you.

    Ever read – The Burmese Way to Socialism? Find it understandable – also would you say Burma post 1962 was good to Buddhist (monks) and others –

    If it’s a history you need all points of view.

    Look at Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States – which is all from the workers’/slaves’ point of view, but he draws on many sources and documents everything – things like letters etc.

    You could make this your magnum opus or in lieu of a Ph.D. Dissertation, but you need to flesh it out and deepen it with many different sources and points of view.

    Ian Holliday, Burma Redux is also good — but in my opinion veers between Burma vs Myanmar without showing a clear argument for one vs the other.

    This is a good start about the d. dictators, but to be multidimensional it needs more (work) – you can retain the journalistic, accessible style, but you must cite sources. I know you told me once you are not an academic, but in this case academic methods like citation will be your best friend.

    Kyi May Kaung (Ph.D.)

    • I don’t really understand what you are driving at. Are you saying that one needs to have a Ph.D. (preferably from a US University) to be able to report on Burma’s recent history? I grew up in Burma during the 50’s and the 60’s and I am aware of most of these things that Ko Aung Zaw is “reporting” in these articles but it is good for the younger generation to know (or to be reminded) this aspect of Burmese history (rise of the dictators). Ko Aung Zaw is already an established journalist and I don’t think he is trying to write a “comprehensive Ph.D. thesis” here or even trying to “pad up” his resume (I know that a lot of Burmese political dissidents in the West end up using their half-baked and biased knowledge of Burmese history to get funding or even Ph.D’s about topics related to Burmese history or politics). Burmese history should be written with the blood of the people who have suffered in that country and not by some pseudo-intellectuals trying to show off with their Ph.D’s!

      • What about the part of the history where ethnics were brutally killed under the false pretense of ‘keeping the union’ intact? Who is qualified to write this? Definitely should not be the Burman invaders, should it? The Burman governments since the start of the nation-building consistently devoid the ethnic area of educational institutes. As the result, the ethnics are not producing enough scholars to relay their sufferings aka Burman brutalities to the outside world in readily available communication formats. So, the ethnics will still have to rely on some Burmen with sense of humanity, whom are more likely to be found outside the country and in the liberal society of the west than among the inward-looking and white-skin worshiping (using your favorite words) self-claimed activists, resident Burmen. Heck. You live in one of the most open-minded society in the world, Canada, yet the Canadian liberalism can’t still crack open the racist thick skull yours. How can the ethnics expect open mindedness from racism-entrapped Burmen who are yet to be exposed to similar liberalism that you’ve been enjoying? What gives?

    • dear dr kyi may kaung
      You should pinpoint which are the wrong historical facts from Aung Zaw with your valid research references.

  3. A copy and paste work! You need to grow up!

  4. Please publish this as a documentary book with pictures – it’ll be a great historic documentary for Burmese history.

    • I totally agree with you but Aung Zaw does not need to forget to mention about U Nu ( faked Buddhism, bamanization) with the help of Ne win’s control sitwindun militants to start killing Karen in Rangoon after independence . How to dismiss unfairly Army chief , Karen Smith Dum by U nu and ne win. It caused the eruption of Karen rebel in Burma.
      In addition , with the help of people liberation communist Chinese army , ne win’s small army could finally defeat KMT which was totally supported by USA at that time. Those are the important facts how ne win got rising fortunately because of irresponsibility of British colony and self-fish manner of USA ( fear of Communist dominance).
      Encourage Aung zaw to publish the valuable book with the essential and important historical facts for next generation.

  5. Ne Win, known for his bad temper and irrationality, was diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia by Austrian psychiatrist Dr Hans Hoff.

    Unfortunately for Burma ,Than Shwe also suffers from psychiatric problems, including a narcissistic personality disorder a condition which has given him an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with himself.

    These two loonies have managed to turn Burma into a basket case.

  6. By the way, if I remember correctly, the date of the shooting at Rangoon University was 7th July 1962, not 1972.

  7. Ko Aung Zaw is not “wrong” he just needs to cite where he got the facts from – That is standard practice now, even among fiction writers – I’m not saying he needs a Ph.D. or even an MA – Don’t you know how to read? – Don’t put words in my mouth, I resent it – you who can’t even put out your real name.

    Ko Aung Zaw can one day get a honorary Ph.D. like Daw Suu for his journalism as she did for her political work – That’s not the point here – the point is who said what, especially opinions, which are not facts.

    According to Christine who first started the book published by Ben Rogers – Than Shwe won his wife, a widow, in a high army officer lotto – CW was doing the research for her MA thesis at a US Univ. I am not giving her full name because I don’t wish to, don’t think it is wise. I don’t know if it is in Ben’s book – go buy the book and read it.

  8. Everybody, the truth is than shwe did report to my brother who was major at that time. They, officers use to make fun of it as he was shy and dum to find a date. Finally, chief of command brought in some yee may(police women) ask him to chose from one. That is the story.

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