Disreputable Commanders-in-Chief of the Myanmar Military  

By The Irrawaddy 14 December 2021

Founded by General Aung San in 1941 as the Burma Independence Army to fight for the then Burma’s independence, and sworn as an institution to be loyal to the Myanmar people and protect them, the Myanmar military has long been downgraded to a bunch of butchers that protects dictators and kills civilians. 

It is ten months since the Myanmar military’s February 1 coup. Since then, it has committed brutal atrocities, gunning down peaceful protesters, ramming vehicles into them and burning civilians alive. 

All it has won for its actions is public disgust. Although most people generally accept that armed forces are a necessity to protect the country, no one wants an army that persecutes its own people.  

Myanmar’s military has had nine leaders including its founder General Aung San, Lieutenant-General Smith Dun, General Ne Win, General San Yu, General Thura Tin Oo, General Thura Kyaw Htin, Senior General Saw Maung, Senior General Than Shwe and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Apart from General Aung San and the ethnic Karen Lieutenant General Smith Dun, who retired early from the military, the military’s leaders from General Ne Win on have dragged down the military’s reputation and turned the armed forces into an institution hated by the Myanmar people and which has earned international notoriety.  

The six military dictators: Gen. Ne Win, Gen. San Yu, Gen. Thura Kyaw Htin, Snr-Gen. Saw Maung, Snr-Gen. Than Shwe and Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, should be noted in Myanmar’s history as being responsible for plunging the country into severe poverty, depriving ethnic groups of their rights and turning the military into a detested organization.  

Originally, under the leadership of its founder and national hero Gen. Aung San, the military won the respect of the Myanmar people as it played a part in driving out the Japanese who invaded in World War II. It rose to greater fame with its repelling of Chinese nationalist troops following Myanmar’s independence in 1948.

The military’s reputation started to suffer after army chief Gen. Ne Win seized power in a 1962 coup from the democratically-elected government led by Prime Minister U Nu, and became more and more infamous under his successors Snr-Gen. Saw Maung, Snr-Gen. Than Shwe and Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. 

Gen. Ne Win ruled as a dictator for 26 years under different titles such as Chairman of the Revolutionary Council and the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), and President and Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services. Under his rule, the peoples love for the military turned into hatred as his regime dynamited the historic Yangon University Student Union building, devalued the currency, nationalized businesses, and so devastated the national economy that Myanmar was included by the United Nations in its least developed country category. The military was also used to carry out brutal crackdowns on anyone who opposed Gen. Ne Win’s rule.

Gen. San Yu, and Gen. Thura Kyaw Htin, the father of current Air Force chief General Maung Maung Kyaw, who succeeded Gen. Ne Win were his puppets and danced to his tune and favored his interests over that of the people. 

(From left to right) General Aung San, Lieutenant-General Smith Dun, General San Yu, General Thura Tin Oo, General Thura Kyaw Htin

Gen. Thura Tin Oo, who is now the patron of the National League for Democracy (NLD), served as the military chief between Gen. San Yu and Gen. Thura Kyaw Htin, but was purged by dictator Gen. Ne Win after his popularity grew within the military. 

Captain Ohn Kyaw Myint, who was executed for orchestrating a failed assassination attempt against the leaders of the BSPP, wanted to hand power back to Gen. Thura U Tin Oo. Gen. Thura Tin Oo stood by the Myanmar people during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. He was able to redeem his name by working closely with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as one of the co-founders of NLD. He later apologized for crackdowns on protesters during the 1974 U Thant funeral crisis and on labor strikes while he was serving as the military chief. 

In 1985, Brigadier General Saw Maung, a protégé of Gen. Ne Win who would later become the first Senior General, succeeded Gen. Thura Kyaw Htin as the military chief. He was in charge during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, when some 3,000 people were killed by the military. That is why the people cried bitterly then that, “The military skills given by Gen. Aung San are not for killing civilians”. 

Although Snr-Gen. Saw Maung publicly promised again and again that the military would return to its barracks after the 1990 general election, he went back on his word and refused to hand over power to the NLD, who won the election. In 1992, he was purged by his deputy, General Than Shwe and military intelligence chief Major General Khin Nyunt. 

For the next 19 years, Myanmar was again under a military dictatorship from 1992 under Snr-Gen. Than Shwe. Many ugly things happened during his rule: dissidents received long jail sentences, junta-backed thugs attempted to assassinate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Tabayin Township, Sagaing Region and the regime carried out brutal crackdowns on protesters during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, as well as ratifying the 2008 military-drafted constitution in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Nargis that killed some 150,000 people.

Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was hand-picked by Snr-Gen. Than Shwe to succeed him in 2011. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest three times for a total of 15 years by Snr-Gen. Than Shwe’s regime, was released during his first year in charge. Subsequently, the NLD won a landslide victory in the 2015 general election and formed the first civilian government in 50 years. 

When the NLD repeated its triumph in the 2020 general election, Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing alleged electoral fraud and seized power in a coup, so following in the footsteps of his predecessors as military chief. 

Ten months on from the coup, 1,329 people have been killed and over ten thousand detained by the military. Its reputation has been tarnished past the point where it can be salvaged and it is now the most hated institution in Myanmar. Today, people do not feel sad when junta soldiers are killed by civilian resistance fighters. But when junta casualties are low, they say “That is all? Make it more, c’mon.” 

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