On This Day

The Day Dictator Ne Win Won Asia’s Nobel Prize

By Wei Yan Aung 4 August 2019

YANGON—General Ne Win, the military dictator who led an oppressive regime for decades in Myanmar, was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award 59 years ago today for restoring law and order in Myanmar as the leader of the caretaker government, but he refused the award.

Myanmar was in a state of chaos in 1958, following the split of the Clean Faction and the Stable Faction within the then-ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), which took the helm of Myanmar after its independence in 1948.

In October that year, Prime Minister U Nu stepped down and Gen. Ne Win formed a military-led caretaker government that ruled the country for the next 17 months. General elections were held in 1960 and power was transferred to the Clean Faction of the AFPFL, led by U Nu, which won at the polls.

Gen. Ne Win won the award in 1960 for his role in helping maintain democracy in Myanmar. However, he told the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation four days later that he would not accept the award, saying he had only done what was required of him by the Constitution.

Personal records show that his refusal was based on his belief that the Philippines’-based award foundation was connected to the American CIA, its awards given out only to those under the thumb of the United States.

However, less than two years after he transferred power to U Nu, Gen. Ne Win staged a coup again and ruled the country for the next 26 years under a single-party system. As a result, the military has maintained a strong grip on country’s politics since.

To date, eight individuals from Myanmar have won the Magsaysay Award, regarded as the Asian version of the Nobel Prize.

Previous winners include the founder of the English-language Nation newspaper (shut down during the Ne Win regime), Edward Michael Law-Yone, in 1959; social worker Tee Tee Luce (1959); Mae Tao Clinic founder Dr. Cynthia Maung (2002); human rights activist and co-founder of Earth Rights International Ka Hsaw Wa (2009); Metta Development Foundation co-founder Lahpai Seng Raw (2013); actor and founder of Free Funeral Service Society Kyaw Thu (2015); and, just this week, Myanmar Now founder Ko Swe Win winning the award for 2019.