The Doubly Disastrous Legacy of Ne Win

By Aung Zaw 28 February 2014

Ne Win, Burma’s former dictator was a family man who loved playing with his grandchildren. He was also a good employer, who thanked his chef after every meal. And before he passed away, he became a practitioner of Vipassana meditation, devoted to finding inner peace.

But what of the public life of this former general once warned protesters that when the army shoots, it shoots to hit? Wasn’t he far less compassionate when it came to calls for him to step down from power?

That may be true, but on the other hand, there was no mass exodus of Burmese citizens during his 26 years in power. Of course, there were some foreigners (i.e., Indians and Chinese who had spent generations in the country) who were expelled when he nationalized the economy, but that was done for all the right reasons.

Likewise, when he cancelled large banknotes, he was just trying to undermine insurgents, not hurt ordinary people. He may have brought the country’s economy to its knees, but that was certainly not his intention.

If all of this sounds more than a little far-fetched, that’s because these are the views of Ne Win’s grandsons, as expressed in a new book based on a series of interviews with a local journalist.

It should come as no surprise that Ne Win’s grandsons (who were recently released from prison, where they were serving a sentence for high treason related to an alleged plot to overthrow the military regime that succeeded their grandfather in power) would want to come to his defense. But unfortunately for them, their efforts to “set the record straight” are not likely to get much sympathy in a nation still bearing the scars of his brutal misrule.

Let’s be perfectly blunt: Ne Win’s decision to set the country on the path of military rule was an unmitigated disaster. He reduced the once prosperous nation to one of the world’s poorest, exacerbated ethnic and political divisions by waging all-out war on minorities and dissidents, and deprived generations of Burmese of hope by gutting the country’s education system.

But even if this new book gets the bigger picture completely wrong, it still provides some interesting behind-the-scenes insights, particularly about Ne Win’s relationship with the man who would one day become his worst enemy: Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

According to Aye Ne Win, one of the grandsons, Ne Win handpicked Than Shwe to become vice chief of staff (army) in 1985 after inviting him and another potential military leader (Myint Lwin, who subsequently became minister for construction) to his residence for dinner.

Even after 1988, when Ne Win was forced to step down following massive pro-democracy protests, he continued to wield influence over the newly formed State Law and Order Restoration Council. For instance, in the early 1990s, he advised the regime to pick either Gen Maung Aye (who retired as deputy senior-general in 2011) or Lt-Gen Tun Kyi (a former trade minister who was sacked in 1997) to fill a powerful position that had become vacant.

As the years passed, however, it became less clear how things stood between Ne Win and his successors, particularly Than Shwe. On weekends, he used to invite Maung Aye, Khin Nyunt (the regime’s feared intelligence chief) and other senior leaders to his home (called the “Royal House” in Burmese), but Than Shwe was always absent from these gatherings.

“We felt that as he was the head of the ruling council he would be extremely busy. And we didn’t want it to seem as if we were trying to influence [the regime],” explained Aye Ne Win, rather unconvincingly.

A more likely reason that Ne Win and Than Shwe never seemed to form a personal bond is the fact that the two men came from very different backgrounds. Ne Win came from a middle-class family, studied at Rangoon University until he was expelled for failing his exams, and later became one of the legendary “Thirty Comrades” who established Burma’s resistance army with Japanese help during WWII. When he was in power, he was a notorious womanizer who enjoyed gambling and mingling with leaders like Lee Kwan Yew, Suharto and Zhou Enlai in the region and beyond. He loved going to the West and often spent his holidays in Austria, Germany or London, all at government expense.

Than Shwe, on the other hand, came from peasant stock. He was born in Kyaukse, a town in Mandalay Division, and is believed to have received at most a 10th-grade education before becoming a postal clerk and then joining the army. He went on to study psychological warfare and believed in Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism,” but never placed much value on education: Unlike Ne Win, who sent his children abroad to study, Than Shwe didn’t take much interest in educating his own children, much less the millions of others deprived of learning under his rule.

A loyal soldier, Than Shwe rose steadily through the ranks, eventually becoming a regional commander in Shan State in the 1980s. At the time, he was still regarded as quite “clean”; it was only much later, once he was firmly entrenched in power, that he earned a reputation for fostering a culture of corruption that surpassed anything witnessed during the Ne Win years.

Whatever the reasons for their aloofness from each other, it came as a complete shock to most Burma observers when, in 2002, Than Shwe moved to neutralize the once all-powerful Ne Win clan once and for all.

In March of that year, three of Ne Win’s grandsons—Aye Ne Win, Kyaw Ne Win and Zwe Ne Win—and his son-in-law, Aye Zaw Win, were arrested at a Rangoon restaurant for allegedly plotting with a senior army officer to overthrow the ruling regime. As many as 100 civilians and army officers were implicated in the alleged coup plot and were thrown into prison (including family astrologer Aung Pwint Khaung, who in an interview included in the book claimed that in 1998, he successfully extended the life of the ailing Ne Win by four years).

Ne Win’s son-in-law and grandsons and other chief conspirators were charged with high treason and given life sentences. Ne Win and his favorite daughter, Dr. Sandar Win, were placed under house arrest.

According to former Maj-Gen Kyaw Win, the deputy head of military intelligence and Than Shwe loyalist who called a press briefing after the accused coup plotters were taken into custody, the grandsons wanted to seize power on March 27, Burma’s Armed Forces Day, but were foiled after Than Shwe was tipped off. But the real plan, Kyaw Win said years later, was to make Khin Nyunt the head of state—a twist in the plot that has never been reported.

Was all of this really just Than Shwe’s way of taking revenge against Ne Win for never inviting him to his personal residence? Or was it about establishing a new “royal” dynasty—something that the once humble Than Shwe clearly aspired to during his later years in power?

In any case, it appears that Burma’s new “king” did not have the full backing of his subordinates: It has recently been revealed that Maung Aye, Khin Nyunt and Col Tin Hlaing (then home affairs minister) all refused to sign Than Shwe’s order to detain Ne Win.

But in the end, the old dictator was placed under house arrest, and it was there that he died on Dec. 5, 2002. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated within 30 hours of passing away, following a ceremony attended by 20 or 30 close relatives (not including those in prison), and his ashes were scattered in the Rangoon River.

That is not the end of this whole sordid tale: In 2004, Khin Nyunt met a similar fate, and he and his family spent most of the next decade under house arrest. Than Shwe, meanwhile, has led a quiet life in his palatial residence in Naypyidaw since his retirement in 2011.

In the book, Aye Ne Win and the other two grandsons try to defend their grandfather’s legacy by saying that at least it was better than Than Shwe’s rule. But in the end, even they have to admit that it was Ne Win who put Than Shwe in power, and by so doing planted the seeds of his own—and the country’s—ruin.