NE WIN YEARS IN BURMA IN THE 1960s, 70s AND 80s

NE WIN SEIZES POWER IN A COUP IN 1962

In 1962, as ethnic tensions were on the rise, General Ne Win seized political power in a bloodless coup and brought to an end the short era of democracy. He had been angered by concessions made to ethnic minorities. He jailed the prime mister, politicians, journalists and students and vowed to lead the country on a neutral, egalitarian “Burmese road to socialism.” "Federalism is impossible," he claimed. "It will destroy the union."

On 2 March 1962, Ne Win, with sixteen other senior military officers, staged a coup d'état, arrested U Nu, Sao Shwe Thaik and several others, and declared a socialist state to be run by their Union Revolutionary Council. Sao Shwe Thaik's son, Sao Mye Thaik, was shot dead in what was generally described as a 'bloodless' coup. Thibaw Sawbwa Sao Kya Seng also disappeared mysteriously after being stopped at a checkpoint near Taunggyi. [Source: Wikipedia +]

A number of protests followed the coup, and initially the military's response was mild. However, on 7 July 1962, a peaceful student protest on Rangoon University campus was suppressed by the military, killing over 100 students. The next day, the army blew up the Students Union building. Peace talks were convened between the RC and various armed insurgent groups in 1963, but without any breakthrough, and during the talks as well as in the aftermath of their failure, hundreds were arrested in Rangoon and elsewhere from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. All opposition parties were banned on 28 March 1964. The Kachin insurgency by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) had begun earlier in 1961 triggered by U Nu's declaration of Buddhism as the state religion, and the Shan State Army (SSA), led by Sao Shwe Thaik's wife Mahadevi and son Chao Tzang Yaunghwe, launched a rebellion in 1964 as a direct consequence of the 1962 military coup.

General Ne Win

General Ne Win ruled Burma for more than 30 years—officially from 1962 to 1988, when he retired, and unofficially behind the scenes to varying degrees after that until his death in 2002. He dominated the Burmese government, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. Ne Win was national hero for his role in Burma’s independence struggle from Britain in 1948. When he served as leader of the caretaker government before the 1962 coup he was very popular. After the coup he was admired by the other generals but generally feared and reviled by the Burmese people.

Martin Smith wrote in The Guardian: “During the second half of the 20th century, General Ne Win dominated the political landscape of Burma. After his seizure of power in a 1962 coup, he led the country into a 26-year era of isolation from the outside world. Indeed, so hermetic did it become under his unique "Burmese way to socialism" that, in 1978, he withdrew from the non-aligned movement. But Burma was to pay a heavy cost for his dictatorial rule. By the time he stepped down in 1988, the country had collapsed to become one of the world's 10 poorest nations. [Source: Martin Smith, The Guardian, December 6, 2002 <>]

“A Tito or Franco-like figure, he had done much to keep his country together in the difficult post-independence years. One confidante described him as the "last great Asian despot," who would be proud if his epitaph was to have kept Burma free from the crises of modernisation and international power struggles that affected its neighbours. He left Burma, however, facing a very uncertain future and, in a country that has become synonymous with human rights abuses, it is unlikely that the historic judgment will be so forgiving..” <>

According to Lonely Planet: “In 1962 General Ne Win led a left-wing army takeover and set the country on the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. He nationalised everything, including retail shops, and quickly crippled the country’s economy. By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Vowing to prevent “chaos,” General Ne Win led a coup in 1962, evicting students and aid workers and banning the teaching of English, while nationalizing timber companies, newspapers, and the Boy Scouts. As the economy began its half-century implosion, the General consoled himself at European spas and at the races at Ascot, and with a string of wives, despite a capacity for violence that drove one of his companions away after he threw an ashtray at her throat. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012]

Ne Win’s Life, Family and Character

A college drop out and former postal clerk originally named Shu Maung, Ne Win was born to middle class Burmese-Chinese parents in the central Burmese city of Paungdale on May 24, 1911. He has a reputation of being secretive, and hot tempered and regarded himself as something of a playboy. He married a half dozen times and had six children.

Martin Smith wrote in The Guardian: “Ne Win's family life was also the subject of much speculation. Officially, he was thought to have been married five times: to Daw Tin Tin in the 1930s, Kitty Ba Than in the 1940s, June Rose Bellamy (an Anglo-Burmese) and Daw Ni Ni Myint, a history professor whom he married twice. Through these marriages, he had five children and gained five stepchildren. In particular, friends say that it was after the death of Kitty Ba Than in 1972 that his character most changed. But according to the Buddhist abbot, Venerable U Rewata Dhamma, it was never money, but power, that corrupted him. [Source: Martin Smith, The Guardian, December 6, 2002 <>]

Ne Win was very superstitious. He never made a decision without consulting his astrologers and was an avid believer in numerology. He had 99 monks present a his birthday party, bathed in dolphin blood and took helicopter trips clockwise around pagodas to earn merit and stave off ill fortune. On top of this he also reportedly consulted an Austrian psychiatrist/

Smith wrote in the The Guardian: “As the years went by, Ne Win's behaviour became increasingly obtuse. Many of his actions were decided by omens and astrological predictions. Most bizarrely, in the 1980s he twice demonetised the Burmese currency, wiping out the savings of millions of citizens overnight and reintroducing notes in awkward 45 and 90 kyat denominations. As everyone knew, nine was his lucky number (4+5 = 9), and it increasingly recurred in official pronouncements. <>

Ben Macintyre wrote in The Times: In 1987 New Win “introduced the 45-kyat and 90-kyat banknotes, for the simple but mind-bending reason that these were divisible by and added up to nine, his lucky number. He believed this move would also ensure he would live to the lucky age of 90. Ne Win, who insisted on walking backwards over bridges at night and other rituals to avoid bad luck, died in 2002, at the age of 92, which was either good luck or bad luck, depending on how you look at it. Even the decision to change the name of Burma to Myanmar was prompted by Ne Win’s soothsayer, and announced on May 27 (since 2 + 7 = 9). [Source: Ben Macintyre, The Times, September 2007]

Ne Win’s Career

Ne Win joined the anti-British movement when he was in his twenties. He was a member of the Thirty Comrades, a group of revolutionaries lead by Aung San who fought for independence against British rule. Trained secretly at a secret Japanese camp on the occupied Chinese island of Hainan the group was sent to Bangkok after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and participated in the invasion of Burma. While in Bangkok he chose his new name. Ne Win means "brilliant killed the sun." After Aung San was assassinated Ne Win rose quickly through the military and became a commander.

Martin Smith wrote in The Guardian: “Ne Win's early career reflected many of the key episodes in Burma's independence struggle. Always a bluff military man, he never displayed the political subtleties of his contemporary, Aung San. Friends remember his initial passions were for sport, especially football. Having failed exams to study medicine at Rangoon University, he became a postal clerk. [Source: Martin Smith, The Guardian, December 6, 2002 <>]

“From the 1930s, he became increasingly caught up in the anti-British agitations of the time. Through his uncle, Thakin Nyi, he joined the nationalist Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association), and, in 1941, accompanied Aung San as one of the famed "30 comrades" who travelled to Hainan island for military training by imperial Japan. Renamed Ne Win (Brilliant as the Sun), he returned home a few months later as an officer in the newly-formed Burma independence army (BIA). By 1943, he was its commander-in-chief. <>

“Dissatisfaction with the Japanese occupation soon set in, and, in March 1945, the BIA leaders turned against the Japanese as British forces reinvaded Burma. But while Aung San and many colleagues now resigned to enter politics, Ne Win stayed in the military. During these years, he worked closely with the British - as a delegate to the 1945 Kandy conference with Lord Mountbatten and, later, as commander of Burmese forces in Operation Flush, to drive out communist insurgents from the Pyinmana hills. But, in private, Aung San had begun to express concerns about his wartime comrade, which his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, referred to many years later. "My father didn't build up the Burmese army in order to suppress the people," she said.” <>

Ne Win After Burma’s Independence

In 1948, Ne Win lead the Burma Independence Army into Rangoon while the British were retreating. In 1949 he became the armed forces chief of staff.

Martin Smith wrote in The Guardian: “A labyrinthine sequence of events now catapulted Ne Win to the national forefront. The 1947 assassination of Aung San gave tragic warnings of the turbulence to come. In a country known as the Yugoslavia of southeast Asia, the transition to independence was always likely to be fraught. Communist insurrections and army mutinies in 1948 were followed by rebellions that quickly spread among the Karens, Mons and other ethnic groups. As fighting raged on the doorstep of Rangoon, the parliamentary government of U Nu only just survived. [Source: Martin Smith, The Guardian, December 6, 2002 <>]

“In February 1949, Ne Win replaced the Karen, Smith Dun, as army chief-of-staff, and using his old regiment, the 4th Burma Rifles, as the nucleus, began to rebuild the Burmese armed forces. It was his finest hour. But in the 1950s, with resistance continuing, he became increasingly dissatisfied with what he saw as the failure of politicians to overcome factionalism in government and insurgencies in the field. From 1958 to 1960, he briefly assumed power as prime minister during an interim military administration.” <>

Ne Win as the Leader of Burma

Under Ne Win, years, Burma disappeared behind a bamboo curtain while its economy hoovered on the brink of bankruptcy. Martin Smith wrote in The Guardian: “His strategy was two-fold: to build up a monolithic system of government under the Burma Socialist Programme party, while launching all-out offensives against insurgent groups in the countryside. Foreigners were expelled, the economy nationalised, hundreds of political leaders imprisoned, and, when students protested at Rangoon University in July 1962, the union building was dynamited, with dozens killed or wounded. [Source: Martin Smith, The Guardian, December 6, 2002 <>]

“Ne Win's political ideas, however, were always vaguely sketched. Close friends believe that his inspiration for power came on a visit to China in 1960 to sign a border agreement with Zhou Enlai. In later years, he showed house guests a fading film clip of his meetings, which he thought put him on a par with Chairman Mao and the Chinese leaders. "Chairman" Ne Win soon became his favoured title.But there was never any real evolution to Ne Win's "Burmese way to socialism", an admixture of Buddhist, Marxist and nationalist principles outlined in just one thin book, The System Of Correlation Of Man And His Environment. Burma's restive minorities, in contrast, saw it as simply a guise for "Burmanisation". <>

“Far from quelling opposition, Ne Win's tactics created a new cycle of insurgencies. At one stage, the deposed prime minister U Nu also took up arms with the Karens and Mons in the Thai borderlands, while Beijing lent military backing to the Communist party of Burma in the mountainous northeast. Moreover, the attempt to create a social ist economy, in international isolation, badly failed. With the black market rampant, economic statistics in Burma, said a World Bank visitor, were a "modern-day fairytale". Everything from jade and opium to medicines and luxury goods were daily smuggled across the frontiers.”

Ne Win quickly took steps to transform Burma into his vision of a 'socialist state' and to isolate the country from contact with the rest of the world. A one-party system was established with his newly formed Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) in complete control. Commerce and industry were nationalized across the board, but the economy did not grow at first if at all as the government put too much emphasis on industrial development at the expense of agriculture. In April 1972, General Ne Win and the rest of the Union Revolutionary Council retired from the military, but now as U Ne Win, he continued to run the country through the BSPP. A new constitution was promulgated in January 1974 that resulted in the creation of a People's Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) that held supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority, and local People's Councils. Ne Win became the president of the new government. [Source: Wikipedia]

After a parliamentary government was formed in 1948, Prime Minister U Nu embarked upon a policy of nationalization. The government also tried to implement a poorly thought out Eight-Year plan. By the 1950s, rice exports had fallen by two thirds and mineral exports by over 96 percent. A coup d'état in 1962 was followed by an economic scheme called the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” an isolationist policy that nationalized all industries and promoted self-sufficiency. Military officers took over these companies, as well as many civil service positions.

Ne Win, the socialist military dictator who was behind the 1962 coup also was the mastermind of "the Burmese Way to Socialism." The catastrophic program accelerated the process of turning a resource-rich country into an economic basket case. A few years after the program was started Burma had to import food to keep it population from starving

Ne Won believed that economic progress threatened the Burmese way of life. His policies were similar to those of North Korea. Private businesses were nationalized, property was sized, entrepreneurship was discouraged and foreign investment dried up. Inefficiency, corruption and black marketing characterized the economy. Between 1962 and 1988, the Burmese government for all intents and purposes bankrupted the country. The business class shrunk due to decades of socialist policies. In the late 1980s Ne Win suddenly declared the currency worthless and replaced it with denominations such as 45 and 90 divisible by nine—his lucky number. Riots and unrest followed that left hundreds dead and triggered the Aung San Suu Kyi-led pro-democracy movement.

Impact of the Burmese Way to Socialism

The "Burmese Road to Socialism” allowed Myanmar’s military to take over the nation’s economy. Mismanagement that led to chronic inflation and near economic collapse by the late 1980s sparked mass protests that came close to overthrowing the government at that time. After the failed street uprising in 1988, there were limited moves toward liberalization. But today, according to the Washington Post, “ the government remains heavily involved in the economy, with military officers heading most state enterprises, often as a reward for political loyalty. A handful of enterprises known as "crony" companies for their closeness to the junta benefit from policies that promote monopoly. [Source: Washington Post, August 16, 2008]

Bertil Lintner wrote in the Washington Post, “As such delusions of grandeur suggest, Burma is no ordinary military-ruled country. When the army first seized power in 1962, the country underwent a transformation entirely different from that of nearby countries such as Thailand, South Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan where the military was also in control. “That's because the Burmese army seized not only political but also economic power. What the generals branded "the Burmese Way to Socialism" meant that most private property was confiscated and handed over to military-run state corporations. The old mercantile elite, largely of Indian and Chinese origin, left the country -- as did many of Burma's intellectuals. Before the 1962 coup, Burma had one of the highest living standards in Southeast Asia and a fairly well-educated population. Afterward, its prosperity fled along with its best and brightest. [Source: Bertil Lintner, Washington Post, September 30, 2007 ]

“The Burmese Way to Socialism was abolished after a massive pro-democracy uprising in 1988, following years of misrule. At the time, even larger crowds than last week's took to the streets in Rangoon and other cities to vent their frustrations with a cruel regime that had done nothing to improve the lives of ordinary people. Then as now, soldiers were sent out to disperse the demonstrators, but using far deadlier force than we've seen in the current crisis. At least 3,000 people were gunned down by an army bent not on seizing power but on shoring up a bankrupt regime overwhelmed by popular protest.

Demonetization and Worthless Money in the 1980s

The currency of Myanmar was demonetized (declared unusable) several times making savings worthless overnight in most cases with little or no compensation. The reason for the practice was to strike at black market traders who withheld large amounts of currency outside the banking system. To this day people in Myanmar have little faith in the currency or banks and choose to keep their savings in gold, jewelry or real estate.

The 50 and 100 kyat notes were demonetized in May, 1964. This was the first of several demonetizations, ostensibly carried out with the aim of fighting black marketeering. On November 3, 1985, the 25-, 50-, and 100-kyat notes were demonetized without warning, though the public was allowed to exchange limited amounts of the old notes for new ones. All other denominations then in circulation remained legal tender. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Only two years later, on September 5, 1987, the government demonetized the 25-, 35-, and 75-kyat notes without warning or compensation, rendering some 75 percent of the country's currency worthless. The resulting economic disturbances led to serious riots (see 8888 Uprising) and eventually a coup d'état in 1988 by General Saw Maung. On September 22, 1987, banknotes for 45 and 90 kyat were introduced. Following the change of the country's name to Myanmar on June 20, 1989, new notes began to be issued. This time, the old notes were not demonetized, but simply allowed to fall into disuse through inflation as well as wear and tear. +

Ne Win Repression

Ne Win made few excuses for his iron rule. He ordered the buildup of the military into the second largest force in Southeast Asia after Vietnam. In 1962, shortly after he took power, the military blew up the student union at Rangoon University to intimidate protesting students. For many years Burma was shut off from the outside world. In the 1960s the government only granted visas for 24 hours. At one time foreign visitors were not allowed to visit the country at all.

A young staff officer called Captain Ohn Kyaw Myint conspired with a few fellow officers in 1976 to assassinate Ne Win and San Yu, but the plot was uncovered and the officer tried and hanged.

In 1978, a military operation was conducted against the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan, called the King Dragon operation, causing 250,000 refugees to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. In 1982 non-Burmese ethnic minorities were declared “associate citizens”—effectively denying them the rights of normal citizens such as holding public office.

In the 1950s, Burma was one of the richest countries in Asia. It had a high literacy rate. When Burma gained independence in 1948, the government sought to create a literate and educated population, and Burma was believed to be on its way to become the first Asian Tiger in the region. However, 1962 coup d'etat isolated and impoverished Burma. All schools were nationalized and educational standards began to fall.Burmese replaced English as the medium of instruction at Burmese universities in 1965, with the passing of the New University Education Law a year earlier. This led to a rapid decline in English proficiency among the Burmese. English was reintroduced as a medium of instruction in 1982. In 1977, the 2 year regional college system was introduced by the Burmese government, as a way to disperse college students until they were about to graduate (the third and fourth years were spent at a traditional university), a system that was ended in 1981. +

Myanmar missed many advances during 50 years of being shut off from the world by the military junta and has been struggling to catch up since an elected government came to power in 2011. Few people in Myanmar know, for example, that a man walked on the moon.

Opposition and Protests Against the Ne Win Government

Beginning in May 1974, a wave of strikes hit Rangoon and elsewhere in the country against a backdrop of corruption, inflation and food shortages, especially rice. In Rangoon workers were arrested at the Insein railway yard, and troops opened fire on workers at the Thamaing textile mill and Simmalaik dockyard. In December 1974, the biggest anti-government demonstrations to date broke out over the funeral of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant. U Thant had been former prime minister U Nu's closest advisor in the 1950s and was seen as a symbol of opposition to the military regime. The Burmese people felt that U Thant was denied a state funeral that he deserved as a statesman of international stature because of his association with U Nu. [Source: Wikipedia +]

On 23 March 1976, over 100 students were arrested for holding a peaceful ceremony (Hmaing yabyei) to mark the centenary of the birth of Thakin Kodaw Hmaing who was the greatest Burmese poet and writer and nationalist leader of the 20th. century history of Burma. He had inspired a whole generation of Burmese nationalists and writers by his work mainly written in verse, fostering immense pride in their history, language and culture, and urging them to take direct action such as strikes by students and workers. It was Hmaing as leader of the mainstream Dobama who sent the Thirty Comrades abroad for military training, and after independence devoted his life to internal peace and national reconciliation until he died at the age of 88 in 1964. Hmaing lies buried in a mausoleum at the foot of the Shwedagon Pagoda.

After his release from prison in October 1966, U Nu left Burma in April 1969, and formed the Parliamentary Democracy Party (PDP) the following August in Bangkok, Thailand with the former Thirty Comrades, Bo Let Ya, co-founder of the CPB and former Minister of Defence and deputy prime minister, Bo Yan Naing, and U Thwin, ex-BIA and former Minister of Trade. Another member of the Thirty Comrades, Bohmu Aung, former Minister of Defence, joined later. The fourth, Bo Setkya, who had gone underground after the 1962 coup, died in Bangkok shortly before U Nu arrived. The PDP launched an armed rebellion across the Thai border from 1972 till 1978 when Bo Let Ya was killed in an attack by the Karen National Union (KNU). U Nu, Bohmu Aung and Bo Yan Naing returned to Rangoon after the 1980 amnesty. Ne Win also secretly held peace talks later in 1980 with the KIO and the CPB, again ending in a deadlock as before.

Ne Win’s Retirement

In November 1981, Ne Win stepped down as president of Myanmar but remained in control of the government as head of the ruling party. He retired from politics and public life in 1988 just prior to a popular uprising for democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi but still maintained a lot of behind-the-scenes political power.

CNN reported: “Ne Win resigned in 1988, but within months the military crushed student-led protests and took power. Multiparty legislative elections in 1990 resulted in the main opposition party - the National League for Democracy (NLD) - winning a landslide victory. Instead of handing over power, the junta arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and annulled the elections. [Source: CNN, December 5, 2002]

It is widely believed that Ne Win remained so powerful after his retirement that the military government could not make decisions without him. A former political prisoner told William Branigan of the Washington Post, "If he's still alive, positive changes will not come quickly. If [the junta] is willing to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi, they have to meet this old man." Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly committed "a crime of lese-majesty" [a crime against the monarchy] when she accused Ne Win of ruining the country and misusing the army that her father had founded.

After his retirement in 1988 New Win became more reflective and spiritual, spending much of his time reading Buddhist texts. William Brannigan wrote in the Washington Post, "he has become increasingly obsessed with his legacy and with Buddhist preparations. He ordered construction of a gold-domed pagoda near Rangoon's renowned Schwedagon pagoda and reportedly spends much of his time studying or discussing religion." [Source: William Brannigin, Washington Post, March 8, 1994]

Martin Smith wrote in The Guardian: After his retirement “he remained a figure of influence within the Burmese armed forces. Much of his time was spent in Buddhist meditation, and, in one of his last public appearances in 2001, he offered lunch at the Sedona hotel to his auspicious number of 99 Buddhist monks. Few people were expecting substantial changes for Burma until after his passing. [Source: Martin Smith, The Guardian, December 6, 2002]

Ne Win died at the age of 91 in December 2002. CNN reported: “On this occasion, though Ne Win's death was not announced officially, a senior military official told CNN that they could not deny the story of his passing.... His health had been declining in recent years and the former dictator suffered a heart attack in September 2001 and had a pacemaker attached. That was reportedly done in Singapore -- a favorite destination for Ne Win because of the high quality of medical care in the city-state. In recent months, Aung San Suu Kyi and the current military government have held secret talks to attempt a dialogue between the two sides. Following Ne Win's death, those talks may now have a better chance of moving forward. [Source: CNN, December 5, 2002]

Ne Win’s Family and Corruption

In 2002, CNN reported: “Once a powerful figure, Ne Win had faded into the history books over the years and was totally discredited earlier this year after he and members of his family were placed under house arrest. His three grandsons and one son-in-law were accused and convicted of corruption and attempts to overthrow the military government. All received death sentences but are appealing their convictions. [Source: CNN, December 5, 2002]

Martin Smith wrote in The Guardian in 2002: “Early this year, however, there was a final twist, when the SPDC arrested Ne Win's favourite daughter, Sandar Win, with whom he was living, along with her husband and their three sons, and accused them of plotting a military coup. By now in his 90s, Ne Win was not publicly accused, but he was placed under house arrest with Sandar. [Source: Martin Smith, The Guardian, December 6, 2002]

In 2008, the BBC reported: “Burma's military government has freed the daughter of the late leader, Ne Win, who has been under house arrest for more than six years, friends said. The woman, Sandar Win, was detained with her father in 2002 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government. Her husband and three sons were sentenced to death, although they have not yet been executed. There has been no statement from the Burmese authorities on the release. His daughter Sandar Win - a doctor - is believed to have played a major role in the suppression of the democracy movement in 1988 after her father resigned as ruler.That was also when she left the military's medical services and became a businesswoman. Before her detention she presided over the Ne Win clan as it developed a significant business empire encompassing hotels, medical services and telecommunications. [Source: BBC, December 13, 2008]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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