In Conversation With a Dictator’s Grandson

By Ye Ni 14 March 2014

Aye Ne Win, a grandson of Burma’s late dictator Gen. Ne Win, was one of 69 political prisoners released under a presidential pardon in November of last year. He was only 26 years old when he and his two brothers were arrested and charged with high treason in 2002, accused of plotting to overthrow the military regime of the time. Aye Ne Win spent 12 years behind bars until his release under the reformist government of President Thein Sein, and these days the dictator’s grandson says he is helping out as he can with the family business interests.

In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy’s Burmese edition editor Ye Ni, Aye Ne Win discussed his time in prison for treason, the Ne Win family legacy, and Burma’s treacherous power politics.

Question: You were a member of a top political family and led a privileged life before you were arrested and imprisoned. How did you handle the transition to life behind bars?

Answer: I feel very reluctant to talk about being thrown in jail, which is a sad story, because the person who ordered our imprisonment did it intentionally to trouble us. In the end, we had to spend 12 years in prison with even our right to receive visitors being prohibited.

However, since we were from a well-known family in Burmese politics, there were times that we were kindly given support, which lessened our suffering and mental wounds. That support came to us because of my grandfather. His influence eased our troubles.

Our situation in jail was much better than others who were imprisoned or sent to far-flung parts of the country due to their goodwill activities for the nation, and our troubles were far fewer than they and their families went through.

Having a clear conscience—knowing that we were incarcerated without having committed any crime—was a moral encouragement for us when we were serving prison terms. I want to say that I do not have any bitter feelings left in my mind regarding my imprisonment, except for having lost 12 years of my life.

Q: The military regime accused you of plotting to overthrow the government. Others say your imprisonment was collateral damage from a power struggle that brought the Ne Win family and its waning political fortunes against the ruling Snr-Gen Than Shwe. What is your take?

A: Our grandfather voluntarily gave up his presidential position in 1981. From then on, he had planned to completely resign from politics. However, he continued to lead the party [Burma Socialist Programme Party] only because there were people who asked him not to leave.

In 1988, he was physically strong and also incomparable in politics. But he opened up a new path for the country—to choose whether it would continue with a one-party system or a multi-party one.

There were those who wanted changes to take place quickly and to contribute to the good of the country and its citizens. They were not only in the opposition forces, among people living abroad and the rebel organizations in the jungle, but also in the Tatmadaw [Burma’s armed forces].

Our family believed that our country’s situation would be much better if the above reform-minded people joined together to make some sort of change. We were also willing to help them as much as we could by using our family’s previous status and influence.

As for the other side, since they did not want such changes to occur or because changes we wanted were not the same as what they wanted, they were not satisfied with our efforts. Consequently, we were faced with plans aimed only at destroying us.

Q: When you say that there were people in the Tatmadaw who wanted to help carry out reforms, are you referring to [former Military Intelligence chief] Khin Nyunt? Speculation has also linked Maj-Gen Aye Kway, then a divisional commander, and Maj-Gen Myint Swe from the air force, to your treason case—as having had a role in the alleged plot. Is there any truth to this?

A: We were charged with high treason and given the death penalty. I am very reluctant to answer the question of whether or not these people were involved because their security would be much affected if I were to say who played what role at the time.

The best answer I can give is that people who were punished in relation to the situation at that time were close to our family. There were also others with goodwill in the Tatmadaw who wanted it to take the leading role in making changes to better the country’s situation. Some of them may still be serving with major duties in the military, administration or politics, so I don’t want to name names or talk about them in detail.

Q: In his resignation speech in 1988, Ne Win said, ‘When the army shoots, it doesn’t shoot into the air, it shoots to hit.’ Later that year, the army fired on pro-democracy protestors and thousands were killed. As one of his grandsons, what do you want to say on his behalf at this time of national reconciliation?

A: I think he should have said what he did, when he did, because he said that on July 23, 1988. If you look at what had happened prior to that, martial law had been declared for Rangoon and Prome cities due to growing riots there on July 21-22. This kind of practice is common in the world.

According to Burma’s Manual for Riot Control, which was last amended in 1940, it prevents soldiers from shooting into the air when they enter urban areas because if they do, they may hit people living in tall buildings as well as others in the markets, schools and hospitals. So, what my grandfather said was simply the warning of a national leader who was trying to let people know about the nature of martial law, and trying to avoid casualties due to a lack of knowledge.

Q: The story goes that motorcycles were banned in Rangoon after you followed and harassed Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye’s motorcade. Is that true?

A: My two brothers and I neither had motorcycles of our own nor had ever ridden them. Also, whether on motorcycles or in other vehicles, we never had anything to do with any motorcade of any state leader. I want to clarify that all of what you have heard is rumors.

With regard to Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, he is an uncle who we very much love and respect, and there was no problem between our families.

Q:How did it feel to have democracy activists, who had been against you, put you on their list of political prisoners whose release they were calling for?

A: I want to say this is a situation in which we all can be kind to each other. Some people say that democracy activists are, in theory, in opposition to us. But personally speaking, we do not consider them as our enemy.

Our family wished to make changes from the beginning, and those who worked then and later for democracy also aimed at a multi-party system, so I do not see that we have any differences in our objectives. We were all working for the benefit of our country, but due to timing and circumstance, we were unfortunate and unable to cooperate with each other then.

Read more about Ne Win’s legacy in this Irrawaddy’s commentary here: