Ne Win

Ne Win

[ne win]
Ne Win, U, 1911-2002, Burmese soldier and political leader. He abandoned his original name, Shu Maung, in 1941 when he joined a Japanese-supported nationalist military group. Becoming commander of the Burmese Independence Army in 1943, he later turned against the Japanese. After Myanmar (known as Burma until 1989) won its independence from Great Britain in 1948, he became Home and Defense minister. In 1958 he deposed prime minister U Nu. U Nu returned (1960-62), but Ne Win removed him again in a 1962 coup. By 1971, he had transformed Myanmar into a one-party police state led by the Burmese Socialist Program party. He nationalized trade and industry, expelled Chinese and Indian entrepeneurs, and adopted isolationism as his country's basic foreign policy. President (1974-81) under a constitution adopted in 1974, Ne Win remained party head until 1988, when he resigned, admitting to economic mismanagement. Agitation for free elections led to a military takeover that year, and Ne Win remained the country's apparent behind-the-scenes power for several years. By the time he ceased to control the country, Ne Win had done much to turn his homeland, once one of the British Empire's most prosperous outposts, into one of the world's poorest countries.

Ne Win (နေဝင်း ; 24 May or 14 May 1911 or 10 July 19105 December 2002; born Shu Maung) was a Burmese statesman and military commander. He was Prime Minister of Burma from 1958 to 1960 and 1962 to 1974 and also head of state from 1962 to 1981. He also was the founder and from 1963 to 1988 the chairman of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, which from 1964 until 1988 was the sole political party.

Date of birth

Ne Win's date of birth is not known with certainty. The English language publication Who's Who in Burma published in 1961 by People's Literature House, Rangoon, stated that Ne Win was born on 24 May 1911. The late Dr. Maung Maung stated in the Burmese version of his book Burma and General Ne Win, also published in English, that Ne Win was born on 14 May 1911. However, in a book written in Burmese entitled The Thirty Comrades, the author Kyaw Nyein gave Ne Win's date of birth as '10 July 1910'.

Kyaw Nyein's date of 1910 can be considered as the more plausible date. First, Kyaw Nyein had access to historical records and he interviewed many surviving members of the Thirty Comrades when he wrote the book in the mid-to late 1990s. (Ne Win was one of the Thirty Comrades who secretly went to undergo military training in Japanese-occupied Hainan Island in the early 1940s for the purpose of fighting for independence from the British. In his book published around 1998 Kyaw Nyein lists the names of the surviving members of the Thirty Comrades whom he had interviewed although Ne Win was not one of them.) Secondly, when Ne Win died on 5 December 2002, the Burmese language newspapers which were allowed to carry a paid obituary stated the age of 'U Ne Win' to be '93 years'. According to Burmese custom a person's age is their age next birthday. Since Ne Win turned 92 in July 2002, when he died in December 2002 he was considered to be 93 years old. Most Western news agencies, based on the May, 1911 birth date, reported that Ne Win was 91 years old but the obituary put up by his family (most probably his children) stated that he was 93 years old, which would be 92 according to the Western way of calculating age.

Early years

Ne Win, given name Shu Maung, was born into an educated Chinese middle class family in Paungdale about 200 miles north of Rangoon. Although Ne Win officially declared his ancestry to be Bamar, there is speculation that he had Chinese roots, with ancestry from Meixian. He spent two years at Rangoon University beginning in 1929, and took biology as his main subject with hopes of becoming a doctor. However, he left university and Rangoon in 1931 to become Thakin Shu Maung, a member of the nationalist organisation Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association). Other members of the group included Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) and U Nu. In 1941 Ne Win, as a member of the Ba Sein-Tun Ok (Socialist) faction of the Dobama, was one of thirty young men chosen for military training by the Japanese . Their leader was Aung San and they formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA). During military training at the then Japanese-occupied Hainan Island Shu Maung chose a nom de guerre, Bo Ne Win (Commander Radiant Sun). In early 1942 the Japanese Army and the BIA entered Burma in the wake of the retreating British forces. Ne Win's role in the campaign was to organize resistance behind the British lines.

The experience of the Japanese Occupation in Burma worked to alienate the nationalists as well as the population at large. Toward the end of the Second World War, on 27 March 1945 the Burma National Army (successor to the BIA) turned against the Japanese following the British re-invasion of Burma. Ne Win, as one of the BNA Commanders, was quick to establish links with the British - attending the Kandy conference in Ceylon and taking charge of the anti-Communist operations in the Pyinmana area as commander of the 4th Burma Rifles after the Red Flag Communists and the Communist Party of Burma went underground to fight against the government in October 1946 and on 28 March 1948 respectively. Burma obtained independence on 4 January 1948, and for the first 14 years it had a parliamentary and democratic government mainly under Prime Minister U Nu, but the country was riven with political division. Even before independence, Aung San was assassinated together with six of his cabinet members on 19 July 1947; U Saw, a pre-war prime minister and political rival of Aung San, was found guilty of the crime and executed. U Nu as leader of the Socialists took charge of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) formed by the Communists, Socialists and the BNA in 1945 now that Aung San was dead and the Communists expelled from the AFPFL.

Following independence there were uprisings in the army and amongst ethnic minority groups. In late 1948, after a confrontation between army rivals, Ne Win was appointed second in command of the army and his rival Bo Zeya, a communist commander and fellow member of the Thirty Comrades, took a portion of the army into rebellion. Ne Win immediately adopted a policy of creating Socialist militia battalions called 'Sitwundan' under his personal command with the approval of U Nu. On 31 January 1949, Ne Win was appointed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) and given total control of the army replacing General Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen. He rebuilt and restructured the armed forces along the ruling Socialist Party's political lines, but the country was still split and the government was ineffective.

Ne Win was asked to serve as interim prime minister from 28 October 1958 by U Nu, when the AFPFL split into two factions and U Nu barely survived a motion of no-confidence against his government in parliament. Ne Win restored order during the period known as the Ne Win caretaker government'. Elections were held in February 1960 and Ne Win handed back power to the victorious U Nu on 4 April 1960.

Military coup of 1962

Less than two years later, on 2 March 1962, Ne Win again seized power in a military coup d'etat. Ne Win became head of state as Chairman of the Revolutionary Council and also Prime Minister.

The coup was characterized as "bloodless" by the world's media, although the former President of Burma Sao Shwe Thaik's young son was shot dead by a soldier, and protests and demonstrations were ruthlessly suppressed. When Rangoon University students staged a peaceful demonstration against "unjust university rules" on 7 July 1962, Ne Win sent his troops to disperse the students. This resulted in about 100 unarmed students being shot and the historic Rangoon University Student Union building - a place of historic significance due to being the centre of anti-colonial struggles - being blown up the next morning.

Shortly afterwards, around 8 p.m. local time, Ne Win addressed the nation in a five minute long radio which concluded in the statement: "if these disturbances were made to challenge us, I have to declare that we will fight sword with sword and spear with spear".

In 1988, 26 years later, Ne Win denied any involvement in dynamiting of the Student Union building, stating that his deputy Brigadier Aung Gyi - who by that time had fallen out with Ne Win and dismissed - had given the order and that he had to take responsibility as a "revolutionary leader" by giving the sword with sword and spear with spear speech.

On 13 July 1962, less than a week after the speech, Ne Win left for Austria, Switzerland and the United Kingdom "for a medical check up". All universities were closed for more than two years until September 1964.

"Burmese Way to Socialism" (1962-1988)

Ne Win instituted a system including elements of extreme nationalism, Marxism, and Buddhism - though he himself lacked interest in either ideology or religion - terming this the Burmese Way to Socialism.

Ne Win founded the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), the chairman of which he remained for 26 years from 4 July 1962 until 23 July 1988. On 23 March 1964, a decree banned all other political parties, establishing a one party state.

His government imprisoned political activists and fought ethnic and communist insurgencies with massive military force. Ethnic problems arose mainly in the south-eastern part of the country, where the British had promised the Karen people a separate state or considerable autonomy.

On 2 March 1974 - twelve years after his coup - he disbanded the Revolutionary Council and proclaimed the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. He had himself elected as President and shortly afterwards appointed Brigadier General Sein Win Prime Minister.

On 9 November 1981, Ne Win resigned as President and was succeeded in that post by General San Yu. However, Ne Win remained leader of the party and thus remained the ultimate political authority until his resignation in 1988.

Economic policies

His government nationalized the economy and pursued a policy of autarky, which involved the economic isolation of his country from the world. The ubiquitous black market and rampant smuggling supplied the needs of the people, while the central government slid slowly into bankruptcy. Autarky also involved expelling foreigners and restricting visits by foreigners to three days, and after 1972, one week. Furthermore, political oppression caused many in the educated workforce to emigrate.

He also took drastic steps regarding the currency: In 1963, he issued a decree that 50 and 100 kyat notes would cease to be legal tender, alleging that they were subject to hoarding by blackmarketeers and also financing of the various insurgencies. Though limited compensation was offered, this wiped out people's savings overnight. At least one insurgency, that of the ethnic Kayan, was triggered by this act.

In September 1987 he ordered the Burmese currency, the kyat, to be issued in denominations of 15, 35, 45, 75 and 90 kyats, besides the existing 5 and 10 kyat notes. He reportedly changed the currency to add up to nine because an astrologer said he would live to 90 if he did this. Ne Win was well known for his penchant numerology and yadaya - cabalistic rituals and spells performed in order to ward off misfortune.

In 1987 After the United Nations had declared Burma a "Least Developed Country" in 1987, Ne Win resigned on 23 July 1988 as chairman of the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party at the height of the uprising against one-party rule.


Despite the oppression, sporadic protests against the government continued. Students led protests in 1965, December 1969, December 1970. These demonstrations took place mainly on campuses located in the cities of Rangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein and were often followed by closure of universities and colleges. In June 1974, workers from more than 100 factories throughout the nation participated in a strike, to which h the government reacted by shooting about 100 workers and students on 6 June 1974 at the Thamaing Textile Factory and the Sinmalaik Dock Yard in Rangoon. Since Ne Win was in Australia on an official visit at the time, responsibility for these shootings is unclear. On 5 December 1974, students turned the funeral of former UN Secretary General U Thant into a demonstration, snatching the coffin on display at the Kyaikkasan Race Course and erecting a makeshift mausoleum on the grounds of the former Student Union building in protest against the government for not honouring their famous countryman with a state funeral. The military stormed the campus on 11 December killing some of the students, recovered the coffin and buried U Thant at the foot of the Shwedagon pagoda, next to the tomb of Thakin Kodaw Hmaing.

Students from universities throughout Rangoon demonstrated again in June 1975 in commemoration of the previous year's Labour Strike. Student-led demonstrations also occurred in March 1976, September 1987, March and June 1988. In August and September 1988, these demonstrations turned into a nation-wide uprising against BSPP rule in what is now known as the 'Four Eights Uprising'.


At the height of the Four Eights Uprising against the BSSP regime, Ne Win resigned as party chairman on 23 July 1988. During his farewell speech to the BSPP Party Congress, he again resorted to issue warning against potential protestors, stating that if the "disturbances" continued the "Army would have to be called and I would like to declare from here that if the Army shoots it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It would shoot straight to hit. The Tatmadaw troops, which shot, killed and maimed hundreds if not up to 3000 or more demonstrators in various places throughout Burma from the period of 8 August 1988 to 12 August 1988 and again on 18 September 1988 proved that Ne Win's farewell speech was not an empty threat.

Military coup of 1988

On 18 September 1988 the military led by General Saw Maung dispelled any hopes for democracy by brutally crushing the uprisings. It is widely believed that Ne Win, though in apparent retirement, orchestrated the coup from behind the scenes.

For about ten years, Ne Win kept a low profile but remained a shadowy figure exercising at least some influence on the military junta. After 1998, Ne Win's influence on the junta began to wane. On 4 March 2002, an alleged plot to overthrow the junta by Ne Win's son-in-law Aye Zaw Win, the husband of his favorite daughter Sandar Win was exposed. Ne Win and his daughter were put under house arrest and in September Aye Zaw Win and his three sons - Aye Ne Win, Kyaw Ne Win and Zwe Ne Win - was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. They are thought to remain in custody in Rangoon's Insein Jail.


Ne Win was married five times:

  1. He was first married to Tin Tin, who bore him a son, Ngwe Soe.
  2. He then married Khin May Than (Katie Ba Than), daughter of Professor Ba Than, the former dean of Rangoon medical school. The couple had two daughters and a son between them, Sandar Win, Kye Mon Win, and Phyo Wai Win. Khin May Than brought three daughters from her first marriage, Le Le Win and twins Thida Win and Thawdar Win, into the family. Khin May Than was Ne Win's favourite wife and her death in 1972 was a heavy blow to him.
  3. He then married Ni Ni Myint, a university teacher, whom he divorced.
  4. He then married June Rose Bellamy (Yadana Natme), a great granddaughter of Crown Prince Ka Naung.
  5. He remarried his former wife Ni Ni Myint.


Still under house arrest, the 92-year-old Ne Win died on 5 December 2002 at his lakeside house in Yangon. The death remained unannounced by Burmese media or the junta. The only mention of Ne Win's death was a paid obituary notice that appeared in some of the government-controlled Burmese language newspapers. Ne Win was not given a state funeral and his former contacts or junior colleagues were strongly discouraged from attending a hastily-arranged funeral, so that only thirty people attended the funeral.

Ne Win’s daughter Sandar Win was temporarily released from house arrest to attend his funeral and cremation. She later dispersed her father's ashes into the Hlaing River


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