The Strange Birds Behind the '88 Coup
By Aung Zaw 18 September 2020
Thirty-two years ago today, a coup d’état saw the government of General Ne Win toppled and replaced by General Saw Maung and his deputy General Than Shwe—the man who would go on to orchestrate Myanmar’s transition to quasi-civilian rule. In this story, first published in the September 2013 edition of The Irrawaddy magazine, founding editor Aung Zaw looks at some of the colorful characters in the halls of power at the time.
Retired Gen. Kyaw Win is a keen observer. These days, he devotes what’s left of his failing eyesight to his two passions: photography and bird-watching. But in the past, when he served as number two in Myanmar’s once dreaded spy agency, he was regularly witness to far more intriguing things.
In April 1992, when Gen. Saw Maung, the leader of the military regime formed in 1988 to “restore order” after crushing pro-democracy protests in a bloody coup, was informed by then military intelligence chief and junta Secretary One Gen. Khin Nyunt that he had been “permitted to retire due to health reasons,” Kyaw Win was there.
“Don’t abandon us,” the visibly shaken Saw Maung said to Khin Nyunt, fearing that he and his family were about to be placed under house arrest.
Long before Saw Maung lost his hold on power, he seemed to be losing his grip on reality. Kyaw Win recalled how Myanmar’s top general once started engaging in a conversation with a Buddha image at a famous shrine in Upper Myanmar. After that, he began declaring himself the reincarnation of the 11th century warrior-king Kyansittha and claimed he could see into the future.
“He didn’t sleep at all,” Kyaw Win said of his former boss, who was clearly suffering from a nervous breakdown and had become dangerously paranoid (on one occasion, Kyaw Win said, the senior general brandished his revolver at some soldiers who had come to welcome him and his wife to a reception).
At one point, then Col. Kyaw Win saw Saw Maung summon regional commanders based in northern Myanmar to Mandalay to demand to know if they still supported him.
In fact, Saw Maung owed his powerful position to Gen. Ne Win, the dictator who had been forced to step down after massive protests calling for his ouster took place around the country. Saw Maung, who was then serving as commander in chief of the armed forces, was called to the former dictator’s residence along with his deputy Gen. Than Shwe and Ne Win’s trusted spy chief Khin Nyunt. Their orders were to stage a coup.
After the military seized power on Sept. 18, 1988, Saw Maung triumphantly declared that he had “saved the nation,” but the sullen Than Shwe didn’t utter a word.
From the beginning, Than Shwe was aloof from the other members of the junta, preferring the company of loyal subordinates. Among them was Kyaw Win, who had served under the taciturn general in Shan State in the early 1980s, and stayed close to him throughout the remainder of his military career.
During all their years together, however, Than Shwe never discussed politics with Kyaw Win. But in a sign that even early on he did not trust Khin Nyunt, he assigned Kyaw Win to act as the spy chief’s deputy.
Reporting back on Khin Nyunt’s words and actions was not difficult: All of the top leaders slept at the War Office from 1988 until the capital was moved to Naypyitaw in 2005. Kyaw Win and other trusted aides would often massage Than Shwe in his bed until he fell asleep. The powerful general also liked listening to their gossip and jokes, and sometimes, even after it seemed that he had already drifted off to sleep, he would laugh out loud at some amusing anecdote the officers were sharing among themselves.
Kyaw Win also knew that his boss had a deep-seated distrust of intellectuals and didn’t like having educated people around him. Despite being a graduate of Yangon University, however, Kyaw Win seemed to have won his trust.
Another thing he knew about Than Shwe was that he regarded Myanmar, a nation wedged between the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, as uniquely vulnerable. For this reason, he believed that it needed a special military budget to build a strong army and acquire nuclear weapons. With money from state-owned enterprises and the sale of natural gas, he moved the capital to central Myanmar and built tunnels and launched a nascent nuclear weapons program.
Meanwhile, Khin Nyunt and his feared Military Intelligence were busy running torture chambers and chasing after dissidents. This part of their operation was sanctioned by Than Shwe; but the dossiers they were collecting on corruption within the regime apparently wasn’t.
In the early days, Than Shwe was regarded as quite clean. But from around the early 2000s, several ministers and powerful generals had begun seeking favors. Usually, they just paid visits to his home, where they could count on a friendly welcome if they came bearing gifts for his family. This has been called “kitchen politics”—currying favor with Myanmar’s top family through the back door.
Kyaw Win’s disapproval of this development made him and other aides who believed it was part of their job to “keep the businessmen at bay” less than popular with Than Shwe’s wife Daw Kyaing Kyaing and other close relatives. But the senior leader continued to entrust him with important missions, such as maintaining contacts with intelligence agencies in neighboring countries and acting as a messenger between himself and opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest. His most important duty, however, was to continue monitoring Khin Nyunt.
Once regarded as a natural successor to Than Shwe, the spy chief never imagined that he would one day be removed from power, despite warnings from his subordinates that he was vulnerable to just such a fate.
The trouble came as powerful generals and commanders in the army’s infantry units learned that they were secretly being investigated. Infantry and intelligence units were always at loggerheads, and it became clear that Khin Nyunt’s intelligence unit was building a state within a state. For years, Than Shwe was urged to put the spy chief in his place—something he had probably wanted to do all along.
Of course, Kyaw Win played a role in Khin Nyunt’s downfall, making sure that all of his reports on his immediate superior reached his real boss via Gen. Shwe Mann, the current speaker of Myanmar’s Lower House of Parliament, who was then the joint chief of staff of army, navy and air force and the third most powerful member of the junta.
To neutralize Khin Nyunt, Than Shwe appointed him prime minister and asked him to hand his duties as spy chief over to Myint Swe, one of Than Shwe’s loyal subordinates and now chief minister of Yangon Region.
But Khin Nyunt refused to play along, and later, Than Shwe learned that he had threatened at a cabinet meeting to expose corruption among military commanders and ministers.
In the end, Than Shwe didn’t have to do a thing. “Do what you have to do,” he said, and soon the problem was taken care of. The infantry commanders, who had a plan in place and had long waited to hear these words, moved swiftly. They arrested Khin Nyunt and threw everyone close to him into prison. Within hours, Khin Nyunt’s spy network was dismantled.
That was in October 2004. When Khin Nyunt, who had been summoned to the office of the junta’s number two Gen. Maung Aye shortly after getting off a plane in Yangon, was told to “go home,” he replied sarcastically that he was “delighted” to do so. He knew he had no choice: All of the other senior junta members—except Than Shwe—were there. He was escorted back to his home, and after years as one of Myanmar’s most feared men, he became just another prisoner of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Although Than Shwe left the dirty business of dealing with Khin Nyunt to his subordinates, he was in full control of what came after. He reinforced his own power base, locked up more dissidents, and pushed ahead with drafting a constitution that would cement the military’s role in Myanmar politics. Finally, after holding a rigged election in 2010 that delivered a landslide victory to the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), he stepped out of the limelight and remains comfortably retired in his fortress-like mansion in Naypyitaw.
During his tenure as Myanmar’s supreme leader, Than Shwe also placed Ne Win under house arrest. Unlike Khin Nyunt, Than Shwe was not close to the former dictator. After Saw Maung, who died of heart failure in 1997, was forced to step down, Than Shwe never bothered to visit the mastermind behind the 1988 coup. Perhaps he had hated him all along.
Khin Nyunt, once dubbed Myanmar’s “prince of evil” by the foreign media, was released from house arrest in early 2012, and now lives as a private citizen. When asked to account for some of the things he did when he was still in power, he insists he was just following orders. Those orders came, of course, from Than Shwe.
Kyaw Win witnessed all of this and more. Now more interested in his avian friends, however, he says he has nothing to say about the current role, if any, of his former boss in Myanmar’s political affairs. But for those of us who have watched Than Shwe eliminate his rivals one by one over the past two decades, it’s difficult to imagine that he isn’t still keeping an eagle eye on everything from his safe, secluded perch, ready to swoop down on anyone who threatens his talon-like hold on power.
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