Rewriting the History of Late Prime Minister Soe Win

By Aung Zaw 12 September 2014

When former dictator Snr-Gen. Than Shwe removed Gen. Khin Nyunt as prime minister of Burma in 2004 on corruption charges, he asked one of the few men he trusted to take over: Gen. Soe Win.

After removing Khin Nyunt because he had become too powerful in his other job as spy chief, Than Shwe needed a loyal commander as prime minister. Not least because a major political transition was being planned and he wanted a trusted man at the top of a new, nominally civilian government staffed with former junta members.

If Soe Win had not died from leukemia in October 2007, Than Shwe would have probably asked him—and not Thein Sein—to become president, a post that was created when the civilian government came into office in 2011.

We will never know how Soe Win would have filled in the position in this critical time in Burma’s political history, but a recently released book attempts to inform the public about the personal history of the late prime minister.

Titled “An Unexpected Long Journey,” the Burmese-language book, sheds some light on Soe Win’s rise through the ranks of consecutive military regimes in Burma, but the author, Myint Thu, does much to conceal the general’s transgressions during his long military and political career.

Published by Myanmar Heritage, the 666-page book comes in a high-quality print edition and includes numerous photos. Myint Thu writes that he interviewed more than 100 people for the book and seems intent on painting a picture of a man who was eager to reform Burma but died before he had a chance to do so.

However, those with knowledge of Soe Win’s career know that he was a ruthless commander who gained the trust of junta leaders Than Shwe and Vice Snr-Gen. Maung Aye because he had been a useful and effective commander during episodes of brutal repression in Burma.

During the crushing of the 1988 democratic uprising, Soe Win commanded troops in Rangoon for several months and is likely to have been directly involved in the bloody crackdown, such as the massacre at Sule Pagoda on Aug. 8. There, soldiers fired directly into a large crowd of unarmed protestors, leaving scored dead and injured.

The book’s account of Soe Win involvement in repressing the uprising claims that he ordered his troops to bayonet the demonstrators, as was happening elsewhere during the crackdown. He himself went along with troops. As people began to disperse he ordered some rubber bullets to be fired into the crowd and “no one was killed,” author Myint Thu writes, in what seems a clear attempt to repair the reputation of the late prime minister.

After the 1988 uprising and the military coup that followed, Soe Win was tasked by the regime with handling sensitive situations such as the religious riots between Buddhists and Muslims in central Burma in the 1990s. But he is probably best known for his involvement in the Depayin massacre in 2003—earning him the nickname among the opposition and dissidents as “the butcher of Depayin.”

By the early 2000s, Soe Win, the then Secretary Two of the regime, had become a favorite of Than Shwe and was assigned to take care of Aung San Suu Kyi’s upcountry campaign trips.

In May 2003, thousands of armed thugs ambushed the opposition leader’s motorcade as she was campaigning in Depayin Township, Sagaing Division. The attack left about 70 National League for Democracy supporters dead and many more injured. Suu Kyi barely escaped with her life thanks to skilled driving by her chauffeur.

The book provides an unclear account of the bloody events and cites Soe Win offering a vague explanation about “clashes” between Union Solidarity and Development Association—the junta’s public mass movement—and NLD supporters. According to the book, Soe Win found that only four people had died and about 70 were injured.

This undated photo shows high-ranking members of the SPDC regime during a visit to the Great Wall of China. From left to right: Gen. Soe Thane (now President’s Office minister), Gen. Thein Sein (current president), Gen. Soe Win (deceased), Vice Snr-Gen. Maung Aye (now retired), Gen. Shwe Mann (current Union Parliament Spear), Gen. Tin Aye (current election commission chairman), Gen. Myat Hein (now communications minister). (Photo: “An Unexpected Long Journey,” Myint Thu)   
This undated photo shows high-ranking members of the SPDC regime during a visit to the Great Wall of China. From left to right: Gen. Soe Thane (now President’s Office minister), Gen. Thein Sein (current president), Gen. Soe Win (deceased), Vice Snr-Gen. Maung Aye (now retired), Gen. Shwe Mann (current Union Parliament Spear), Gen. Tin Aye (current election commission chairman), Gen. Myat Hein (now communications minister). (Photo: “An Unexpected Long Journey,” Myint Thu)

Curiously, it then quotes him as saying he is fond of the NLD leader. “We like Suu Kyi, but we have to protect her from danger, assassination attempts and those who wanted to harm her because she is Gen. Aung San’s daughter,” Soe Win reportedly said. It adds that he thought she was only unfit to enter Burmese politics because she had married a foreigner and could have been a woman leader like the late Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan if she had “married someone of her own race.”

Born in Taunggyi, Shan State, in 1949, Soe Win was the son of an Intha minority father and a Karenni mother. He joined the army in 1966 and was a graduate of the Defense Services Academy’s 12th intake. His classmates included ex-generals Tin Aung Myint Oo (a former vice president) and Tin Aye, the current chairman of the Union Election Commission.

Despite his ethnic background, there is little evidence to suggest that his attitude to Burma’s numerous marginalized minorities was any different from the rest of the predominantly Burman regime.

Myint Thu writes that Soe Win “achieved” certain things for the population of Nagaland, located in the remote mountains of western Burma, when he was a regional commander in Sagaing Division. Apparently, the book says, he ordered the Naga tribes in some villages to start wearing short pants and he distributed t-shirts in order to discourage the traditional practice among women of going topless.

It adds that Soe Win thought this was necessary to ensure that the practices of the tribes would not offend visiting foreign tourists, who the regime hoped to attract to Burma and its more remote, exotic regions such as Nagaland in the late 1990s.

Like Thein Sein, Soe Win was viewed as one of the least corrupt generals of the kleptocratic regime, and was known to live a simple life style. When he tried to tackle corruption after becoming prime minister, his civil officials advised him to “fix the roof,” a reference to high-level complicity, according to the book. However, he was quickly stonewalled by fellow junta members who closed ranks to protect their interests when he tried to address top-level graft allegations, according to Myint Thu.

Than Shwe liked the plain-talking Soe Win who, like the supremo himself, wanted to develop the country through mega projects, such as hydropower dams. The two also agreed on the need to build a new Burmese capital and Soe Win’s tenure as prime minister saw the impoverished county embark on the massive, Potemkin project of cutting Naypyidaw out of the jungles of central Burma.

An interesting passage in Myint Thu’s book appears to shed some new light on the origin of the idea behind the construction of Naypyidaw. It says that the theory that Burma needed a more defensible capital located further inland was first put forward by Daw Yin Yin, a Geography professor who taught at the Defense Services Academy and introduced the idea to Soe Win and other generals.

Daw Yin Yin was the mother of the late Nay Win Maung, a Burmese academic who co-founded the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center and Myanmar Egress. The latter think tank advocated the controversial position that Suu Kyi and the dissidents should accept the regime’s undemocratic 2008 Constitution in order to facilitate political cooperation between the army and opposition.

As prime minister, Soe Win mentioned good and clean governance in his speeches and made an attempted to introduce e-governance, according to the book. But as we have seen he did little to initiate genuine government reforms and continued the regime’s disastrous economic policies. Like the other generals, such as Thein Sein, Soe Win was a military man with little policy and management experience, rendering him completely incompetent in bringing the country’s collapsed economy, public finances and social services in order.

In 2006, at the age of 57, Soe Win began to experience health problems and was flown to Singapore for treatment for leukemia. In October next year he died in Rangoon. As he lay on his death bed, growing public discontent over the poor state he had left Burma’s economy in boiled over when fuel subsidies were suddenly cut and prices of everyday goods and services spiked.

The protests turned political and from August to October the Saffron Revolution saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to demand political reform. As protests wound down after a violent crackdown by authorities, Soe Win was given a quiet state funeral by Than Shwe. Meanwhile, news of the dozens of Buddhist monks and protestors who were killed, injured or arrested was suppressed by the government.

After the massive protests, Than Shwe realized it was high time to implement the long-planned political transition. With Soe Win gone, the old strongman decided to make the smoother, less corrupt Gen. Thein Sein prime minister and later president, in order to have another loyalist lead Burma’s new, quasi-civilian government.