On This Day

The Day Ex-Dictator Than Shwe’s Reign Began

By Wei Yan Aung 23 April 2019

Twenty-seven years ago today, state broadcaster Myanmar Radio and Television surprised the Myanmar public with its evening announcement of Senior General Saw Maung’s resignation as chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the ruling body of the country’s military dictatorship. The announcement of the forced resignation was signed by his deputy, General Than Shwe, and said the chairman had to retire for health reasons. However, there were rumors that the move was the result of a split between the other SLORC members and the senior general, who had openly announced prior to the 1990 general elections that the military would return to the barracks after the poll. It had been two years since the election, and the victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy hadn’t been honored. The men in olive green were still in power.

In his 2015 autobiography “Lives I Have Been Through”, SLORC Secretary 1 General Khin Nyunt writes that he had seen signs that the senior general’s health was deteriorating, including such paranoid behavior as bringing a pistol to the office and placing it on the table—things he had not done in the past. Occasionally, he told General Khin Nyunt that people were not trustworthy or loyal.

The chairman’s ouster was well planned by General Than Shwe and then Military Intelligence chief Brig-Gen. Khin Nyunt, according to U Tun Kyi, the ex-general and former Mandalay Region Commander. In his memoir “50 Years of Personal Experiences”, he writes that all command and divisional commanders were summoned to the Yangon War Office on the morning of April 23 to be briefed by Gen. Than Shwe about his “temporary promotion” to chairman of the SLORC due to Sen-Gen. Saw Maung’s ill health.

The family of the senior general, who lived mere meters away from the room where Gen. Than Shwe was holding his briefing, wasn’t aware of the situation. When the senior general’s retirement news was aired on the state broadcaster in the evening, a furious Daw Aye Aye Yi, the ailing chairman’s wife, stormed into the meeting room, in which Gen. Than Shwe and the commanders were still present, to angrily complain that her husband had been mistreated, according to U Tun Kyi’s autobiography.

Snr-Gen. Saw Maung

Some nervous commanders wondered aloud what would happen if Chairman Saw Maung came into the office brandishing his pistol. To their relief, the military spy chief Khin Nyunt assured them that the bullets in the chairman’s gun were blanks, U Tun Kyi wrote.

After the April 23 forced retirement, Snr-Gen. Saw Maung was no longer in the public eye. Five years later in July 1997, people read his obituary in state-run newspapers. He was 69 years old.

The ousting of Snr-Gen. Saw Maung saw another announcement signed by Brig-Gen. Khin Nyunt appointing Gen. Than Shwe as SLORC chairman, prime minister and commander-in-chief of the Defense Services of Myanmar on the same day. The following year, the general was promoted to the senior general position.

Senior General Than Shwe ruled Myanmar for 19 years from 1992 to 2011. His tenure was a rocky period for Myanmar on every front. Prisons across the country were never short of political dissidents and activists. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest several times until 2010. He founded the Union Solidarity and Development Association in 1993. Despite his claim that the association was merely a social organization, people believed it was his pocket army when the Depayin massacre targeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi occurred in 2003.

Businessmen greet U Than Shwe at a Union Day dinner in February 2011. / Khin Maung Win

Economically, sanctions were imposed by Western countries, leaving grassroots level people to suffer. Cronyism strengthened, with business concessions handed out, mostly in the country’s lucrative extractive industries. Dependency on China increased, resulting in shady development deals with Chinese companies, including the Myitsone Dam project, which are still causing headaches for today’s NLD government.

In 2005, he moved the administrative capital to Naypyitaw, a new capital founded on scrubland. Two years later, his international notoriety increased with the Army’s deadly crackdown on Buddhist monks and protesters in the Saffron Revolution. He orchestrated the National Convention, which convened in 1993 to draft the 2008 Constitution; the charter was ratified in a controversial referendum held just days after Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar.

When his military-proxy Union Solidarity and Development party won the 2010 general election, which was seen locally and internationally as a sham, Sen-Gen. Than Shwe handed over power to a quasi-civilian government largely consisting of civilians who had been his military subordinates, creating a safe exit for him. Since then he has faded away from day-to-day politics, but many believe the betel-chewing old man is still the power behind the throne.

After winning the 2015 election, National League for Democracy chairperson Daw Aung San Suu Kyi paid a call on by-then retired Sen-Gen. Than Shwe. The visit was made possible by his favorite grandson Nay Shwe Thway Aung. He recently described his grandfather as someone patient, who can control his emotions, knows how to get things done and how to hand it over when the time comes.

Now 86, the military strongman spends most of his time in a large mansion in Naypyitaw.