Book Review: General Ne Win: A Political Biography by Robert H. Taylor

By Bertil Lintner 28 June 2016

“As for the control of civil disturbances, I have to inform the people throughout the country that when the army shoots, it shoots to hit; it does not fire into the air to scare,” said Burma’s dictator Ne Win when he announced his resignation as chairman of the then-ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party at its extraordinary congress on July 23, 1988. Anti-government demonstrations had begun in the old capital Rangoon and other cities, and, on August 8, 1988, millions of people across the country took to the streets to vent their frustrations with 26 years of dictatorial rule and disastrous economic policies which had turned what once had been one of Asia’s most prosperous countries into one of the poorest. And then, as Ne Win had pledged, the military did not “fire in the air to scare”—thousands of people were gunned down when soldiers fired their automatic weapons into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. It was a massacre even bloodier than what happened in China a year later, when its pro-democracy movement was crushed by military might.

However, Robert Taylor, a prolific writer on Burmese affairs, seems to believe that such a horrific event in Burma’s modern history is worth no more than two peculiarly worded sentences: “It was impossible for him [Ne Win] to sleep, as the noise of the demonstrators was quite loud and could easily be heard on Ady Road [Ne Win’s residence]. Once, when shots were heard, Ne Win indicated that they were probably fired by monks.” (p. 529)

Taylor’s voluminous, 620-page biography of the general who turned Burma into a political and economic wreck, and who ruled with an iron fist for more than two decades, must go down in the history of literature as one of the most sycophantic portraits of a ruthless dictator ever written by a Western academic. Events after Ne Win’s coup d’état on March 2, 1962, when he overthrew Burma’s democratically elected government, are described in this manner: “Despite the unfortunate events that marked the first months of the Revolutionary government, including the death of Sao Shwe Thaike’s son, and the students’ demonstrations at the university, and the unwillingness of political party leaders to accept Ne Win’s socialist vision, there were still events to cheer Ne Win and assure him that he was undertaking the right way to unify Myanmar’s fractious politics.” (p. 267)

Any other historian would have written that the “unfortunate” death of the 17-year-old son of Burma’s first president Sao Shwe Thaik happened when soldiers stormed into his family home in Rangoon during the night of the coup and gunned down the young boy in cold blood. The ex-President and then Speaker of the Upper House of the Burmese Parliament was led away and died, most likely extra-judicially executed, in military custody a few months—no one knows exactly when—after his detention.

The other “unfortunate event”—student demonstrations against the coup—was, in fact, the first massacre carried out by the new military government. On July 7, soldiers armed with newly issued German G-3 assault rifles, surrounded the campus at Rangoon University—and opened fire. Officially, 15 students and lecturers were killed and 27 wounded. But both neutral observers and students who were present during the shooting assert that the university looked like a slaughterhouse where not 15 but hundreds potential leaders of society in many fields lay sprawled in death. Sai Tzang, another of Sao Shwe Thaik’s sons, wrote after the event: “It was clear that the soldiers were firing not merely to disperse the crowds, but were under orders to shoot to kill.” During the night after the massacre, the military dynamited the historic Rangoon University Students’ Union building, reducing it to rubble. As for the troublesome leaders of Burma’s political parties, who were opposed to Ne Win’s pseudo-socialist ideas, they were arrested.

Taylor also makes the extraordinary claim that the military seized power in 1962 partly because the Shan princes, or sawbwas, “were beginning to organize armed opposition to the government.” (pp. 255-256) It is correct that a Shan rebellion broke out in 1958, but the sawbwas had nothing to do with it. It was organized by university students, a former officer of the Union Military Police, and local nationalists. The sawbwas, led by Sao Shwe Thaik, were opposed to armed struggle and presented their demands for a new federal structure at a seminar that the Prime Minister at the time, U Nu, had convened in Rangoon just before the coup. Needless to say, all the participants in the seminar were arrested too.

Apart from Sao Shwe Thaik, another Shan sawbwa, Sao Kya Hseng of Hsipaw, was also arrested and murdered in custody. The story and fate of Sao Kya Hseng and his Austrian wife Inge is the theme of a recent movie, Twilight Over Burma, which could not be shown at this year’s Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival in Rangoon. According to the BBC: “The invited audience in Rangoon was told censors thought it damaged the army’s image and national reconciliation.”

As for eliminating threats to national unity, British Burma specialist Martin Smith wrote in his obituary of Ne Win for the Guardian on December 6, 2002: “Far from quelling opposition, Ne Win’s tactics created a new cycle of insurgencies. At one stage, the deposed prime minister U Nu also took up arms with Karens and Mons in the Thai borderlands, while Beijing lent military backing to the Communist Party of Burma in the mountainous northeast.”

In the same vein—blaming non-Burman and other rebels for the country’s woes—Taylor claims that, during the August-September 1988 pro-democracy uprising, “insurgent groups along the border were taking advantage of the chaos to attempt to enhance their own positions.” (p. 530). In fact, one of the most remarkable features of the events of 1988 was that the ethnic rebels and the insurgent Communist Party of Burma, did nothing at all to “take advantage” of the situation, or to link up with the urban movement. Instead there were clashes between Karen and Mon rebels at Three Pagodas Pass over claims to territory. It was only after the military had stepped in on September 18—not to seize power, which it already had, but to shore up a regime overwhelmed by popular protest—that the ethnic rebels joined hands with pro-democracy activists who had fled to the border in the wake of a second massacre in Rangoon and other cities and towns.

It would be tedious to list all other inaccuracies and distortions of history that Taylor’s book contains. But it is worth noting that Taylor is not an outcast among Burma watchers. He is closely affiliated with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, a supposedly serious academic institution based in Singapore, and his comments on contemporary Burmese politics have appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review, a not particularly successful attempt to emulate the old and well-respected Hong Kong weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, which folded in 1994.

More importantly, Taylor’s account of the life and rule of what Smith refers to as the “last great Asian despot” is an insult to the people of Burma and all those who lost loved ones in massacres carried out by the military in urban as well as frontier areas where the non-Burman nationalities live. They deserve better—and so does Burma, which has been misruled and terrorized by successive military-dominated regimes since 1962. Whether the situation will improve under the present government remains to be seen. But, against the backdrop of repression and tyranny that Ne Win left behind, it would be an almost insurmountable task for any civilian government to achieve national reconciliation and restore economic prosperity. That is the tragic legacy of the Ne Win era.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma.