The Dictators: Part 9—Than Shwe Becomes King

By Aung Zaw 3 May 2013

This is the ninth 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.

In July 1995, when the regime surprised everyone by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, Than Shwe took full credit. He sent a reconciliatory message to Suu Kyi informing her of her unconditional release, which his man Kyaw Win personally delivered to the pro-democracy leader at her home. Also in July 1995, while the power struggle between Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt was becoming more contentious as Than Shwe gained power and stature, former dictator Ne Win, then 84, expressed to his long-time close aides that he was losing interest in politics altogether.

Ne Win had a private meeting with Tin Aung Hein and Chit Hlaing, who was the architect of the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” and told them that he didn’t want to hear anything about politics, but was only interested in the subjects of religion and meditation. After the coup in 1988, Chit Hlaing had presented Ne Win with a book by Ledi Sayadaw, the influential and revered monk who revived the traditional practice of vipassana meditation in Burma, and Ne Win now told him that since 1990 he had practiced meditation and had purified his mind and was at peace. He also said that that if he had read Ledi Sayadaw’s book earlier he would not have inflicted so many blunders upon the country.

Many would argue, however, that it is not Ledi Sayadaw’s teaching that Ne Win should have read in the early days, but books on economic principles. Even if he had only appointed, like Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew, a “Berkeley mafia” to steer the economy, then he may have been remembered as an authoritarian ruler who made Burma prosperous, rather than one who drove the country to its knees.

Despite his professed aversion to politics, Ne Win was not finished influencing the moves of his successors. In a surprise move in 1997, the aging former dictator flew to Indonesia to meet President Suharto, and immediately after his return he summoned the four leading figures in the SLORC— Than Shwe, Khin Nyunt, Maung Aye, and Tin Oo—to his residence. This time, Ne Win talked about eradicating corruption rather than coups, but the end-result was nearly the same. Some analysts believed Suharto family members, who were interested in investing in Burma, complained about widespread corruption among top members of the Burmese regime, and as a result key members of the ruling council—including Tun Kyi, Myint Aung and Kyaw Ba—were soon removed from their posts.

Trade Minister Tun Kyi learned that he had been removed upon his return from the army golf club. He was taken to the interrogation center, where he was reduced to tears while providing details of “tea money” and corruption. It was rumored that Tun Kyi also admitted once inviting famous young movie stars to his ministry office, where he asked them to do a catwalk after they undressed.

The regime first announced that the purged ministers had become advisors to the ruling council, which at the time was renamed the “State Peace and Development Council” (SPDC). But the advisory posts were soon cancelled and it became clear that the powerful ministers, some of whom were placed under house arrest, were removed due to corruption. Afterward, observers noted that while Than Shwe collaborated with Khin Nyunt and Maung Aye on what in effect was a quiet coup against key lower-level members of the ruling council, the change of guards most benefitted Than Shwe because it cleared away potential rivals that could have challenge him in the future.

After that time, Than Shwe was able to exercise the authority to hire and fire anyone, giving him the ability to consolidate and build up his power base at the War Office by appointing trusted aides to senior positions. Exercising this absolute power for the first time, he appointed trusted officers Gen Soe Win, Gen Shwe Mann, Gen Thein Sein and Gen Myint Swe to top positions, and it became clear that the once invisible hand of Than Shwe was now firmly at the helm.

Burma saw many other ups and downs in 1997. The country became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) despite criticism from the organization’s Western partners, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on the regime, and Saw Maung died of heart failure at the age of 68 while still under house arrest. Then in 1998, the regime held its first joint military exercises that included the navy, air force and army to add counteroffensive strategies to the existing people’s war doctrine. During these exercises the fire brigade, the Burmese Red Cross and the Union Solidarity Development Association were also mobilized.

In his book “Building the Tatmadaw,” defense analyst Maung Aung Myoe said, “The exercises revealed that the purpose of such a counteroffensive was to counter a low-level foreign invasion.” According to the Maung Aung Myoe, the new “people’s war” doctrine developed by the regime dictated that should the standing conventional force fail to defeat an invading force on the beachheads or landing zones, resistance would be organized at the village, regional and national levels to sap the will of the invading force. When the enemy’s will is sapped and its capabilities are dispersed and exhausted, the Burmese army would be able to muster sufficient force to wage a counteroffensive that would drive the invader from Burma. In Than Shwe’s strange universe, external enemies were just biding their time, waiting to invade Burma—but then again he had the British and Japanese as not-so-distant examples.

In 2002, Ne Win’s final payback time arrived in traditional Burmese military style. The regime still listened to the “old man” and his favorite daughter, Khin Sandar Win, who remained involved in the big picture and was involved in the telecom business with her husband, Aye Zaw Win. Ne Win’s favorite grandsons also grew up and were seen roaming around Rangoon and teaming up with the powerful scorpion gang, who were allegedly involved in crime, murder, violence, drugs and other mafia-style activities during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Then in 2002, Ne Win and his close relatives were accused of plotting to take state power. The regime removed Ne Win’s personal security officers and placed him and his daughter Khin Sandar Win under house arrest, and they put his son-in-law and beloved grandsons in prison on charges of high treason. On Dec. 5, 2002 Ne Win died quietly in his house and his body was unceremoniously taken to a small cemetery, where family members were waiting. There was no public announcement and no state funeral.