The Dictators: Part 4—Ne Win’s Paranoia Grows

By Aung Zaw 22 March 2013

This is the fourth 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.

Despite his close relationship with Tin Oo, the paranoid Ne Win didn’t trust anyone. He was afraid of being poisoned and his cook, Raju, would have to taste each dish in front of him (Raju himself was as powerful as a minister—it was rumored that he once slapped the face of young army colonel named Khin Nyunt because he didn’t drink or play golf).

In addition, Singapore elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew recalled seeing Ne Win on a golf course in Rangoon wearing a steel helmet with security guards surrounding him, and former officers working at the War Office in 1970s recalled that sometimes when Ne Win’s convoy and speedy Nissan patrol jeeps full of soldiers holding Israel–made Uzi machine guns arrived, Ne Win wasn’t in his limousine, but rather at the back of one of the jeeps.

Before Tin Oo’s rise to the top of the intelligence service, Ne Win would travel to Vienna, where he would see a well-known psychiatrist Dr. Hans Hoff. “The secrets of what the Burmese dictator said on the couch remained locked in an Austrian office, whatever was troubling Ne Win, he stopped receiving therapy in the mid-1970s,” wrote Thant Myint-U, a historian and the grandson of U Thant, in his book the “River of Lost Footsteps.”

Around the time he stopped seeing Dr. Hoff in Vienna, Ne Win visited Pearl Island in the southern region of Burma to inspect a pearl-producing project. Myo Aung, whose elder brother Ba Thein Tin would become the chairman of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1975, welcomed the dictator and his delegation, and his presence perhaps made “number one” nervous.

Ne Win stayed up late into the night, which kept his personal physicians busy monitoring his behavior, and then took a moonlight walk along the beach followed by dozens of security guards and worried army officers.

Myo Aung stayed away from Ne Win, but his deputy Lt-Col Chit Swe followed. Number one nervously cracked jokes, but nobody laughed because they were all scared to death. When Chit Swe attempted to engage Ne Win in conversation, the dictator at first ignored him but was drawn in when Chit We brought up the subject of horse-racing—whatever horse Ne Win said was his favorite, Chit Swe readily agreed was the best.

Then Ne Win became more nervous when he saw flickering lights from the communication room, which was busy informing the War Office of Ne Win’s condition every five minutes, and yelled at officers to switch off the equipment. Then when Ne Win finally calmed down and agreed to retire to bed, he insisted on sleeping at a small jetty rather than in his bungalow, so soldiers hurriedly carried his mattress to the jetty and security guards waited nearby until morning.

In the past, Tin Oo had told his colleagues that, “If father gets upset, it won’t last long.” But he also confided that he had a premonition of one day being purged, and Ne Win finally began to doubt Tin Oo as well. In 1981, when Thaung Kyi, joint secretary of the BSPP, died of a heart attack while playing golf, Ne Win came to meet all senior party leaders at the hospital.

Before his arrival, Tin Oo prepared a clever reshuffle that would have seen Gen Kyaw Htin take over Thaung Kyi’s position— which would move the general from a powerful army post to a party post. But Ne Win wanted Gen Kyaw Htin to remain in the armed forces, and after hearing about the reshuffle he stepped in and asked Tin Oo to become joint secretary instead. Political observers said that Ne Win, a clever political chess player, perhaps foresaw Tin Oo’s next move and preempted it, and many in the BSPP agreed.

Afterward, a rift between Ne Win and Tin Oo began to appear, and Tin Oo’s rivals fueled the fire by feeding Ne Win information about Tin Oo. After he was appointed joint secretary of the BSPP, Tin Oo promoted Mon culture through several state-sponsored projects, including the Burmese Broadcasting Service, and a rumor then began to circulate suggesting that he was a “Mon Pretender” who wanted to govern Burma after Ne Win’s passing. Several army officers including Sein Lwin, who is also Mon and received the nickname “The Butcher of Rangoon” after the 1988 massacre, were behind the smear-campaign against Tin Oo.

Just a few days before Tin Oo’s son held a lavish wedding party in Rangoon, many passengers at the Rangoon International Airport saw Ne Win board a special flight to Ngapali beach. Ne Win had been invited to honor the wedding with his attendance, but decided to skip the ceremony and banquet.

The entire wedding party and all the guests were whispering about Ne Win’s absence, but Tin Oo maintained his cordial smile. When all the guests had left, however, the once spy chief broke down and grabbed a bottle of whiskey and sat down with close comrades, where he expressed fear over Ne Win’s wrath.

Finally, in 1983, Tin Oo was sentenced to five life terms in prison for misuse of state funds and property. The government published a series of articles accusing Tin Oo of corruption, citing his sons’ lavish wedding and the red carpet treatment he received at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok when he visited. Everyone knew the corruption charges were ridiculous, and observers speculated that Tin Oo was purged because he moved to consolidate his power too quickly.

While being held in Insein Prison, Tin Oo wrote a letter appeal to Ne Win, saying that he feared reprisal and didn’t want to become a “monkey show.” And when a prison riot broke out in 1988, prison officers immediately relocated him to a safe detention center fearing he would be killed.

After the coup, Tin Oo was allowed to return to his house in Rangoon. Until his death in 1998, Tin Oo took refuge in meditation and, like many old soldiers, studied Buddhism. He never betrayed Ne Win, and colleagues who saw him after 1988 said that the former spy chief still kept many secrets and stories about the dictator that went with him to the grave in 1999, when Ne Win showed up to mourn.