The Dictators: Part 7—Than Shwe’s Reign Begins

By Aung Zaw 19 April 2013

This is the seventh 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.

Saw Maung initially became the chairman of SLORC, the newly established ruling council, Than Shwe the vice-chairman, and Khin Nyunt—the powerful intelligence chief who had been well positioned ahead of the coup and helped create anarchy during the 1988 uprising that paved the way for the army to take over—was rewarded by being named Secretary-1.

While Saw Maung took to the podium and gave speeches, the ubiquitous Khin Nyunt roamed around the city meeting people, inspecting projects and issuing orders. Both the public and the international community thought Khin Nyunt was calling the shots, but Khin Nyunt’s power was still based on Ne Win, who continued to pull strings after he left the political stage.

At the Armed Forces Day dinner hosted by Saw Maung on March 27, 1989, Ne Win appeared together with top brass, all laughing and enjoying dinner. The photo of this gathering, printed on the front page of the state-run newspapers, provoked public anger by sending the dual message that the old man Ne Win was still a player and the generals were celebrating their victory in the bloody coup.

And the Armed Forces Day get together between Ne Win and the SLORC elite was not an isolated event. Intelligence officers posted near Ne Win’s house often saw vehicles carrying Saw Maung, Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt arrive at his residence.

When Saw Maung was asked by Asiaweek whether Ne Win was still in power behind the scenes, the general answered, “It is most difficult for us to explain these rumors and allegations … When people see me visit Ne Win, they think I’m going for instruction or advice. But he’s like a parent to me.”

But as Burmese prof. Kyaw Yin Hlaing noted in his paper, “Power and Factional Struggles in Post-independence Burmese Governments,” Saw Maung’s comment to the journalists was classic Burmese misdirection. “Whenever Ne Win summoned them to his residence, all senior SLORC officers had to go and see him, as if they were subordinates paying homage to a supreme commander,” Kyaw Yin Hlaing wrote.

Ne Win continued to exercise this type of influence for several years after the 1988 coup. In 1990, for example, intelligence officer Aung Lynn Htut and his team were taking care of security at the army golf course, which had been newly renovated by relocating thousands of people to new satellite towns where they had no water and no electricity.

Aung Lynn Htut received a radio message saying that Magagyi— Ne Win’s secret code—was coming to play golf, and the message was relayed to Than Shwe, who was also there playing with senior officers.

Than Shwe immediately asked security officers to retrieve a Rangoon map, and when Ne Win arrived he grabbed the opportunity to impress his “former” boss by pointing out state-sponsored road, bridge and town building projects. Aung Lyn Htut observed that Than Shwe treated Ne Win with full respect.

During the 1990 election, which the NLD dominated at the polls, Saw Maung and the other SLORC leaders saw that the pro-democracy party received many votes from military personnel and their families. Before the election, Saw Maung had promised to hand over power to the winner, and he had once said, “I am a person who never lies.” But the frightened SLORC generals changed their minds after losing the election and were clearly not going to cede power to the NLD.

SLORC Chairman Saw Maung came under heavy pressure and reportedly began drinking at home. He then began acting erratically, sometimes referring to himself as the reincarnation of an ancient Burmese king, Kyansittha, who founded the Pagan dynasty. At one point, Saw Maung was even seen waving his pistol on a military golf course and screaming, “I am Kyansittha,” which also means “the remaining soldier.”

Some Burmese who loathed the generals found Saw Maung, despite his threats and intimidation, at least entertaining. His long speeches, which sometime lasted hours, became national jokes, with people laughing as they watched him on television or read the transcripts in the national newspaper.

Saw Maung’s fellow generals, however, were not laughing. When Min Lu, a famous poet and writer, wrote and distributed a satirical poem called “What has become of us?” that mocked Saw Maung’s bizarre behavior, he was tracked down by the intelligence unit and arrested on charges of trying to “create misunderstanding” between the people and the Defense Services. In November 1990, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

As Saw Maung was slowly losing his grip both on power and reality, Khin Nyunt barked, flexed his muscles and built his own empire— projecting himself as the hard working leader of Burma. In contrast, officers recalled that Than Shwe would sit silently in meetings at the War Office, maintaining his sullen and expressionless countenance—unlike many powerful generals in the armed forces, “Bulldog” was never a fire-breathing dragon (although it would later would be discovered that his bite was much worse than his bark).

Than Shwe still liked building roads, dams and bridges and soon received a second nickname: “Dam and Bridge Minister.” He was often seen touring upper and central Burma, where he and senior leaders attended numerous ribbon-cutting ceremonies. He could also be found inspecting agriculture projects and once told ministers that he wanted to keep the forests of Burma green, apparently not realizing that Burma’s forests had already been devastated by his own regime and its cronies.

In 1991, Than Shwe returned to the Irrawaddy Delta region that he had overseen in the 1980s, which had since become a stronghold for Suu Kyi’s NLD and a site of renewed activities by Karen insurgents. Karen leaders had plans to enter the delta, and in February 1991 the KNU began smuggling ammunition from Tavoy (Dawei) to the area.

There were still many sleeper cells in the Irrawaddy Delta region that were ready to join the revolution—many consisting of old KNDO members who had survived the offensive in the 1970s—and the KNU thought was that if they could rise up in the delta, they could easily enter Rangoon.

So from their jungle headquarters in Manerplaw on the Moei River, the KNU sent commandos to train local villagers in guerilla warfare tactics. And when a local police patrol intercepted a forward team carrying radio equipment and ammunition to Bogalay, an initial skirmish erupted that soon led to another full-blown government military operation.

Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt oversaw the campaign in the Irrawaddy Delta, code named “Operation Storm,” alongside army chief of staff Maj-Gen Tin Oo and regional commander Maj-Gen Myint Aung. The generals were not going to take the chance of allowing armed infiltrators to come close to Rangoon, so they brought in Chinese-made helicopters, jet fighters and naval vessels to reinforce the ground troops and hunt down suspected Karen rebels who, for the most part, were just ordinary villagers.

According to the regime’s figures, 275 enemy combatants were killed in the campaign, 13 were arrested and three surrendered, but most analysts say the numbers were much higher. Than Shwe and the other top leaders who oversaw the operation had given a shoot to kill order, and many villagers were simply executed or became the victims of air raids. The survivors were not necessarily the lucky ones.

Hundreds of Karen villagers—some as young as 15—were thrown into prison and subjected to torture and inhumane interrogation techniques. Some Karen villagers are reportedly still being detained in prison, but they are not listed by political prisoner campaign groups because nobody knows who they are.

In 1992, rumors spread that Saw Maung had suffered a serious nervous breakdown, and in April of that year SLORC’s Secretary-1 Khin Nyunt and Secretary-2 Tin Oo visited Ne Win at his residence on Ady Road, where the supposedly retired dictator gave the order for Than Shwe to replace Saw Maung.