Ne Win

Background

The influence of Europe begins to be felt in the Irrawaddy Delta in the 16th Century. British intrusion mounts at the start of the 19th Century, culminating in 1886 when Britain takes full control of the country, naming it Burma.

The British are temporarily forced out by the Japanese during the Second World War and leave for good on 4 January 1948 when Burma is declared independent. The stability of the country is tested almost immediately, as the many tribal minorities revolt. More background.

Mini biography

Born Shu Maung (Apple of One's Eye) on 24 May 1911 at Paungdale, in central Burma, to middle-class parents. His father is a minor public servant.

He studies at University College, Rangoon (now Yangon), from 1929 to 1931, when he leaves after failing a biology exam.

Win will marry seven times. His second wife, Khin May Than, bears him three children: Sandar Win, Kyemon Win and Phyoe Wai Win.

1930s - In the mid-1930s New Win becomes involved in the struggle for independence from Britain, joining the Dobama Asiayone (Our Burma Association), where he meets nationalist leader Aung San.

1941 - Ne Win is one of the 'Thirty Comrades', a group of nationalists who secretly travel to Tokyo to receive military training from the Japanese in order to pursue the fight for independence. Before returning to Burma each member of the group selects a nom de guerre. Shu Maung selects Ne Win, meaning 'Brilliant as the Sun' or 'Sun of Glory'. He will be known by this name for the rest of his life.

The Japanese air force bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December. The US and Britain respond by declaring war on Japan. Japan is now a combatant in the Second World War and British Burma has become a target for its hostilities.

The Burmese nationalists form the Burma Independence Army (BIA) on 26 December. Ne Win leads the BIA into Rangoon when the British retreat ahead of the advancing Japanese.

1942 - The Japanese occupation of Burma during the war is initially supported by the Burmese nationalists, including Aung San, who is made minister of war in the occupation government, and Ne Win, who is given the rank of general and, in 1943, made chief-of-staff of the pro-Japanese Burmese National Army (BMA).

1945 - In March, with the defeat of the Japanese imminent, Aung San forms the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) and switches the BMA's allegiance to the Allies. British authority over Burma is restored in August, though the push by the nationalists for independence continues. Ne Win remains in the army, taking command of the 4th Burmese Rifles.

1947 - The AFPFL, led by Aung San, wins an overwhelming majority of Constitutional Assembly seats in elections held in April. However, Aung San is assassinated in Rangoon on 19 July, along with eight other members of the new Cabinet.

1948 - The British finally leave Burma on 4 January. A period of flux follows, with the new nation being destabilised by a series of tribal revolts and incursions by communist insurgents. Both the Karen and Shan tribes agitate for independence.

The Karen, Burma's largest ethnic minority, are concentrated in the Irrawaddy Delta and near the border with Thailand. The Shan are based in the Shan plateau, bound by the borders with China and Thailand.

1949 - On 1 February Ne Win is made commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw (armed forces). On 1 April he becomes deputy prime minister, home minister and minister for defence in the new government. He exploits the ethnic conflicts to strengthen his position and extend the influence of the army, which is purged of Karen soldiers and officers.

1950s - Under Ne Win's command, the army is able to contain both the Karen revolt and the insurgency by the Chinese-backed Burmese Communist Party.

The AFPFL wins elections in 1951-52 and 1956 but internal tensions develop and the party splits in 1958, with the army supporting Ne Win's Burmese Socialist Party faction. Despite the political instability, the economy prospers, with growth averaging more than 6% during the 1950s.

1958 - With the AFPFL unable to govern and civil unrest increasing, the prime minister is forced to ask Ne Win to form a temporary military government. Ne Win rules in caretaker mode for 18 months. During this time he attempts to modernise the bureaucracy and control separatist elements in the Shan states.

1960 - Democracy is restored with the running of a general election. However, the new government's promotion of Buddhism as the state religion and accommodation of tribal separatist movements alarms the military.

1962 - On 1 March, following rebellions by the Shan and Kachin tribes, the military acts. Ne Win returns to power in a bloodless coup d'état. His quasi-Marxist military regime will attempt to create a one-party socialist state but instead ruin the country's economy.

The prime minister, politicians and representatives of the ethnic minorities are arrested. The constitution is suspended and parliament is dissolved. The civil rights of Chinese and Indian minorities are curtailed.

A 'Revolutionary Council' is established to oversee government. Opposition political parties and independent newspapers are abolished. The Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) is formed.

Ne Win is given full executive, legislative and judicial powers, ruling by decree. The country is isolated from the outside world as the new government pursues its 'Burmese Way to Socialism'.

A state-controlled, centralised economic system is introduced. All private enterprises are nationalised. Foreign businesses are forced to leave the country.

The program results in economic breakdown, the emergence of a black-market, a rise in corruption and the impoverishment of a rich and fertile agrarian state that was once the largest exporter of rice in the world.

Demonstrations and protests against the regime are brutally put down, though the military is unable to completely curtail the tribal separatists and communist insurgents.

1971 - Ne Wins visits China, where he not only manages to convince his hosts to stop supporting insurgents from the Communist Party of Burma but also restores relations between the two countries after they had been damaged by anti-Chinese riots in Burma that had been partly inspired by Ne Win himself.

1972 - On 20 April Ne Win and 20 of his army colleagues resign their military posts and form a civilian government.

1974 - On 3 January a new constitution transfers power from the Revolutionary Council to a single-party 'People's Assembly' composed of Ne Win and the other former military leaders within the BSPP. The country's name is changed from Burma to the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. Ne Win becomes president and prime minister. On 11 December, after food shortages have provoked riots, the regime declares martial law.

1976 - Following an unsuccessful coup attempt, Ne Win dismisses the army's increasingly popular commander-in-chief and has him imprisoned for his alleged involvement in the plot.

1977 - Ne Win visits Phom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on 26 November, becoming the first foreign head of state to visit the country since its takeover by the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

1981 - Towards the end of the year, Ne Win unexpectedly relinquishes the presidency to San Yu, a retired general, but continues to wield power as the chairman of the BSPP.

1983 - Ne Win orders another purge of the armed forces, with all senior intelligence officers being dismissed. The new chief of military intelligence, Khin Nyunt, is hand-picked by Ne Win.

Over the following years Ne Win will continue to oversee the promotion of key military officers. Saw Maung, a future leader of the country, is made commander-in-chief of the armed forces in 1985. Than Shwe, a more significant future leader and Ne Win's real successor, is promoted to deputy commander-in-chief and deputy defence minister.

Than Shwe was born in 1933 in a town near Mandalay in the country's north. He enrolled in the Burmese Army's Officers' Training School in 1952, graduating as a second lieutenant in July 1953. During his long career with the military he sees action in the Karen and Shan states, studies at the army's Psychological Warfare Department in Rangoon (1958), and is appointed as head of the Political History Department in the Central School of Political Science in Rangoon (1963). In January 1969 he returns to the field as a major with the 77th Light Infantry Division in Karen State. During this period he meets his wife, Kyaing Kyaing. At the end of 1969 he is assigned to the War Office in Rangoon. He then goes back to the field as lieutenant-colonel in the 88th Light Infantry Division in Shan State. In 1975 he is again posted to the War Office. He is made commander of the 88th Light Infantry Division in 1980, and head of the Southwest Command in the Irrawaddy Delta in 1983.

Than Shwe is considered by many of his contemporaries to be a rather stolid and dull character. He is nicknamed "bulldog."

1987 - The United Nations (UN) designates Burma a 'Least Developed Nation', officially recognising the once prosperous country as one of the 10 poorest nations in the world.

On 10 August Ne Win admits in a televised broadcast that mistakes have been made during his 25-year dictatorship and suggests that the constitution may be changed "in order to keep abreast with the times."

1988 - In March Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San's daughter, returns to Burma from an extended period overseas to nurse her dying mother.

Student-led protests against the military regime break out in Rangoon in March and June. The protests are triggered by Ne Win's decision to reissue bank notes in denominations divisible by the number nine.

Ne Win, who is obsessed with mysticism and numerology, considers nine to be a particularly auspicious number. His decision wipes out the value of most people's savings without warning or compensation.

The regime responds to the protests with force but loses its grip when Ne Win steps down as chairman of the BSPP on 23 July.

Ominously, in his last public address before leaving office, Ne Win warns, "If in the future there are mob disturbances, if the army shoots, it hits."

Sein Lwin, the head of the riot police and a close associate of Ne Win, is put in control of the government. He quickly orders the imposition of martial law.

The movement for democracy gains momentum during the so-called 'Democracy Summer' or 'Rangoon Spring', culminating in a mass uprising on 8 August that spreads from Rangoon across the entire country. The uprising is squashed when the military fires on the demonstrators, killing thousands. (Sources estimate between 3,000 and 10,000 die). The bloodshed comes to an end on 12 August when it is announced that Sein Lwin, the so-called 'Butcher of Burma', has resigned.

Aung San Suu Kyi, as the daughter of Burma's most famous independence hero, is drawn into the democracy movement. On 26 August she addresses a rally of 500,000 gathered in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, proposing the establishment of a People's Consultative Committee to help resolve the crisis.

However, on 18 September, following a bloody power struggle within the government, it is announced that there has been a military coup. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a junta composed of 21 senior military officers led by Saw Maung now rules Burma. Than Shwe is vice-chairman. Khin Nyunt is first secretary. Ne Win remains a powerful backroom influence. It is later reported that Maung had been instructed to stage the coup by Ne Win.

SLORC claims it will turn over power after free and fair elections but political gatherings of more than four persons are banned and force is again used to suppress demonstrations.

The opposition is formally organised into the National League for Democracy (NLD) on 24 September, with Suu Kyi as secretary-general. She advocates nonviolent protest, urges the UN to intervene and accuses Ne Win of controlling SLORC behind the scenes.

1989 - In June the country's name is officially changed to the Union of Myanmar, and the name of the capital from Rangoon to Yangon.

Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest in Rangoon on 20 July for "endangering the state." Under the laws of the junta she can be held without charge or trial for three years. In 1991 the period for detention without charge or trial is extended to five years.

SLORC introduces a "four cuts" policy to control the country's ethnic minorities. Tribal provinces are declared military zones and their ethnic populations are forcibly relocated to fenced compounds. Dissent is brutally suppressed. It is estimated that civilian fatalities in the zones average around 10,000 a year.

In an effort to prop-up the ailing economy, hundreds of thousands of peasants are forced into slave labour, either for construction projects or into service for the army. The practice is euphemistically described by the junta as "people's contributions."

The country's forests and natural resources are plundered and drug production (principally the growth of opium poppies and manufacture of heroin) is allowed to flourish. At the same time, the size of the army is doubled, from 175,000 soldiers in 1989 to 325,000 in 1995. By the end of the century the army numbers 400,000 troops. Expenditure on the armed forces increases proportionally, with over US$2 billion dollars worth of military equipment being procured from China.

1990 - The junta allows a multiparty general election to proceed. The vote is held on 27 May. The NLD wins 82% of the seats contested. However, the junta ignores the results, refuses to allow the parliament to convene, and jails the NLD's elected candidates.

The junta says it cannot accept the establishment of a civilian government based on an interim constitution and that it will not hand over power until a new constitution is passed by a national convention.

1991 - Towards the end of the year, Ne Win summons Than Shwe, Khin Nyunt and the military commander of Rangoon and tells them to get rid of the increasingly erratic Saw Maung.

1992 - In April Saw Maung falls. Than Shwe takes his place, becoming chairman of SLORC, prime minister and military commander-in-chief. On 24 April the junta announces that it will organise a National Convention to draft a new constitution.

1993 - The first session of SLORC's national constitutional convention is held on 9 January. Over 80% of the 702 delegates are directly appointed by the junta. The NLD is represented by 86 delegates.

1994 - The junta now says it can detain Suu Kyi for up to six years without charge or trial.

Suu Kyi calls for dialogue. Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt subsequently meet with her on 20 September. It is their first meeting since Suu Kyi's arrest. She meets with Khin Nyunt again on 28 October.

During the year the UN Commission on Human Rights reports that torture, summary executions and forced labour are commonplace in Burma, along with "abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced replacement, important restrictions on the freedom of expression and association, and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities."

The report has no affect on the junta, which continues its campaign against the Karen separatists, reportedly with the assistance of drug warlord Khun Sa.

1995 - Suu Kyi is freed from house arrest on 10 July but is not allowed to travel outside Rangoon. She continues to call for dialogue with SLORC and for a peaceful transition to a democratic government.

In November the NLD walks out of the national constitutional convention, arguing that the convention is undemocratic and that the draft constitution would entrench military control of the government. On 29 November the junta formally expels all of the NLD delegates. The convention is completely suspended on 31 March the following year.

1996 - In May over 256 members of the NLD are arrested or detained. In June the junta forbids the unauthorised writing of a state constitution. The penalty for violation is 20 years imprisonment.

On 26 September 159 NLD delegates and 414 supporters around the country are arrested ahead of an NLD congress. Suu Kyi's Rangoon residence is blockaded.

Large-scale student demonstrations against the junta break out in October, continuing until the end of the year. SLORC detains over 200 NLD activists and confines Suu Kyi to her residence.

1997 -The international community begins to act in response to the repression. The European Union (EU) introduces limited sanctions against the junta. Tougher sanctions are implemented by the US in May.

Military actions against Karen separatists stationed near the Thai border continue during the first quarter of the year. About 20,000 Karens flee into Thailand.

In February Indonesian President Suharto visits Burma to finalise a deal on the construction of toll roads by a company run by his eldest daughter. Most of the cars imported into Burma are manufactured by a company controlled by Suharto. Suharto's second and youngest sons are also involved in business ventures in the Burma.

In September Ne Win travels to Indonesia for talks with President Suharto. Suharto complains that the level of corruption in Burma is affecting his investments.

On his return to Burma, Ne Win summons his "private cabinet" (Than Shwe, Khin Nyunt, Maung Aye and Tin Oo) and orders change, including the arrest of some of the more corrupt members of SLORC. On 15 November SLORC dissolves itself, reforming as the 19-member State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), chaired by Than Shwe. Maung Aye is deputy chairman and Khin Nyunt is first secretary.

The reshuffle allows Than Shwe to consolidate his power.

1998 - During the year the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports that forced labour is "widespread and systematic" in Burma.

1999 - Suu Kyi's husband is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The junta refuses to grant him a visa to visit his wife before he dies but says it will allow Suu Kyi to leave the country to visit him. She refuses, fearing she will not be allowed back into Burma if she leaves. Her husband dies on 27 March.

2000 - In September, after a series of unsuccessful attempts to travel to the countryside to meet with NLD officials, Suu Kyi is again placed under house arrest. Ninety two members of the NLD are detained.

Undeterred, the NLD announces plans to draw up a new constitution in contravention of the law forbidding such action without approval from the junta.

UN-brokered talks between Suu Kyi and the junta recommence in October. The talks are reported to have been initiated by Khin Nyunt, with the backing of the now 90-year-old Ne Win.

The junta is said to be prepared to allow a return to democracy provided there is a transitional power-sharing arrangement between themselves and the NLD. They also want guaranteed immunity from prosecution for past human rights abuses, and a commitment from Suu Kyi that she will give up any personal political ambition.

2001 - Ne Win suffers a heart attack in September and is subsequently fitted with a pacemaker.

2002 - Following a secret meeting between Suu Kyi and Than Shwe in January the junta steps up the release of political prisoners and the NLD is allowed to reopen 35 of its branches in Rangoon.

On 7 March Ne Win and his favourite daughter Sandar are placed under house arrest in Rangoon after Sandar's husband and three sons (Ne Win's son-in-law and three grandsons) are taken into custody for allegedly plotting a coup with dissident military commanders. The son-in-law and grandsons are subsequently charged with high treason. They face death if convicted.

Ne Win and Sandar are also accused of being involved in the coup plot.

At the trial of Ne Win's son-in-law and grandsons it is alleged that the four planned to kidnap Khin Nyunt, Maung Aye and Than Shwe on 27 March then hold them at Ne Win's home until they agreed to reorganise the government.

The trial concludes on 26 September with the four defendants being found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The verdict comes 44 years to the day after Ne Win first took power in Burma. Ne Win and his daughter Sandar Win remain under house arrest.

The trial and sentencing signals the end of Ne Win's influence in Burmese politics.

Later the death sentences imposed on Ne Win's son-in-law and three grandsons are commuted to life imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi is released from her 19-month detention on 6 May. The restrictions on her political activity are lifted. She is free to travel around the country and to lead the NLD, although her activities will be closely monitored by the junta.

At the end of July more political prisoners are released from detention. Further releases follow in August. However, the junta refuses to be drawn on when talks with Suu Kyi will begin, despite the continuing efforts of the UN to bring the parties together and the adoption by Suu Kyi of a more conciliatory stance.

By 19 August the prospect of talks appears remote, with Khin Nyunt stating that a transition to democracy cannot be "done in haste and in a haphazard manner."

The end of the year brings the end of an era.

Ne Win dies at 7:30am on 5 December at his home in Rangoon. He is cremated just hours later at a small ceremony attended by his daughter, Sandar, and about 25 others. His ashes are scattered in the Rangoon River.

No senior members of the military are present and there is no official announcement of the passing of the former dictator, who was still under house arrest when he died. The Burmese press publishes only a simple obituary submitted by Ne Win's family. The obituary does not mention Ne Win's rule or his military titles.

Most of Ne Win's assets are confiscated by the junta, and the Win family's bodyguards are purged from the military.

Postscript

2003 - Suu Kyi is taken into "protective custody" by security forces on the evening of 30 May after a pro-junta crowd attacks her motorcade near the village of Depayin, about 100 km northwest of Mandalay.

Nineteen other leaders of the NLD are also held in "protective custody." NLD offices throughout Burma are closed in the renewed crackdown.

In response to Suu Kyi's arrest, the US, the EU, Britain and Canada extend the sanctions against the junta.

China, however, advises nonintervention and in September loans the Burmese Government US$200 million to buy Chinese goods, including military equipment.

At the end of August the leadership of the SPDC is reorganised, with hardliners being brought into top positions while the relatively pragmatic Khin Nyunt is shifted into the largely ceremonial post of prime minister. Several days later, on 30 August, Khin Nyunt unveils the junta's "road map to democracy", a plan to restart the constitutional convention suspended in 1996 as a first step towards "free and fair" elections. However, Khin Nyunt's days are numbered.

2004 - On 30 March the junta announces that the constitutional convention will be reconvened on 17 May. All the delegates to the previous convention, including those from the NLD, are later invited to attend the meeting, which is to be held at Nyaung Hnapin, Hmawbi township, 32 km north of Rangoon.

On 14 May the NLD announces that it will not attend the convention, throwing the meeting's legitimacy into question.

The convention proceeds nevertheless. Held under strict security and with limited press coverage, it is attended by 1,076 delegates, including representatives from 17 former ethnic insurgent groups. It is subsequently described by Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights to Burma, as a "meaningless and undemocratic exercise."

"In all the transitions that I know ... I don't know a single transition that has operated under these constraints," Pinheiro says. "I don't understand the purpose of this surrealistic exercise. ... It will not work. It will not work because it has not worked in Brazil, in Uruguay, in Argentina, in Portugal, in Spain, in the Philippines, in Indonesia. This way of political transition will not work; will not work on the moon, will not work on Mars."

The convention goes into recess on 9 July. It will reconvene periodically over the coming years. The NLD will continue its boycott.

The prospects for political reform in Burma are further dimmed on 18 October when Khin Nyunt is charged with insubordination and corruption by the junta, removed from office and put under house arrest. He is replaced as prime minister by Lieutenant-general Soe Win, a hard-line protégé of Than Shwe.

Soe Win is believed to have been involved in the planning of the attack on Suu Kyi on 30 May 2003. The international humanitarian organisation Human Rights Watch reports that he has stated publicly that "the SPDC not only will not talk to the NLD but also would never hand over power to the NLD."

With Khin Nyunt out of the way, Than Shwe has undisputed authority over Burma.

2005 - The Human Rights Watch World Report 2005 describes Burma as "one of the most repressive countries in Asia."

"Burma has more child soldiers than any other country in the world, and its forces have used extrajudicial execution, rape, torture, forced relocation of villages, and forced labour in campaigns against rebel groups," the report says.

During her Senate confirmation hearing on 18 January the incoming US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice names Burma as an "outpost of tyranny", along with Belarus, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

On 21 April the human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide releases a report that claims there is "strong circumstantial evidence" that the junta has used chemical weapons against Karen rebels in the country's northwest.

According to the report, on 15 February 2005 a shell fired by the Burmese Army into a Karen camp emitted "a very distinctive yellow smoke" with a "highly irritating odour."

"Within minutes those (Karen) soldiers near enough to inhale vapours from this device became extremely distressed with irritation to the eyes, throat, lungs and skin," the report says.

The following month, British researcher Guy Horton publishes his report 'Dying Alive: A Legal Assessment of Human Rights Violations in Burma'. Based on intensive research, including a secret four-month excursion from Thailand into Burma, the 600-page report alleges that the junta is committing genocide in the Shan, Karen and Karenni provinces.

On 5 August the executive director of the World Food Program, James Morris, reports that humanitarian issues in Burma are "serious and getting worse."

According to Morris, one third of Burmese children are chronically malnourished or physically stunted, with malnutrition rates rising to 60% in some border areas.

Other health problems ravaging the population include HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. It is estimated that more than 600,000 people in Burma are infected with HIV-AIDS. Almost 100,000 new cases of tuberculosis are detected in the country each year. Malaria is the leading cause of death, with about 600,000 cases and 3,000 deaths reported annually.

On 16 December the UN Security Council receives a briefing on Burma from the UN Undersecretary-general for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari. The council hears that 240 villages have been destroyed since 2002, that there is forced labour in the country and that there are 1,147 political prisoners.

According to Gambari, the situation in Burma had deteriorated since Khin Nyunt was ousted in October 2004.

"Deep-rooted chronic and accelerating poverty, growing insecurity and increasing political tension appear to be moving Myanmar towards a humanitarian crisis," he says.

Back in Burma the junta launches its biggest military campaign against the Karen and Karenni in 10 years, targeting settlements near the Thai-Burma border.

2006 - At the end of January the US magazine 'Parade' names Than Shwe as the third worst dictator in the world.

In October UN Special Rapporteur Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro reports to the UN General Assembly that the junta's military campaign against the Karen and Karenni is forcing thousands to flee their homes and may lead to a humanitarian crisis. Pinheiro also reports that at the end of August there were 1,185 political prisoners in Burma.

According to 'The Washington Post', "Burmese forces have burned down more than 200 civilian villages ... in Karen state, destroyed crops and placed land mines along key jungle passages to prevent refugees from returning to their home villages. Dozens of people have died, and at least 20,000 civilians have been displaced over the past eight to 10 months."

The campaign is thought to have been launched to secure the eastern approaches to the new purpose-built capital at Naypyidaw (Royal City) and to clear sites for hydroelectric dams planned for the Salween River.

The Thailand Burma Border Consortium, an aid agency caring for refugees along the Thai-Burma border, estimates that since 1996 more than 3,000 villages have been destroyed or abandoned in eastern Burma and more than one million people have been displaced.

The 'Sydney Morning Herald' reports that, despite the junta's ongoing human rights abuses, foreign investment into Burma has "shot up to US$6 billion in the 12 months to March this year (2006), from only US$158 million a year before. Trade grew 27% to $5.5 billion, yielding the generals a $1.6 billion surplus."

2007 - An attempt by the US to get the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for an end to political repression in Burma fails when the move is vetoed by China and Russia on 12 January. The resolution is also rejected by South Africa.

In August protesters begin to take to Burma's streets after the junta raises the price of cooking gas by 500% and doubles the cost of transport fuels. The protest movement gains momentum and comes to be known as the 'Saffron Revolution' when Buddhist monks join in then take the lead.

Demonstrations continue for six weeks, growing in size and spreading throughout the country. They are the largest protests seen in Burma since the 'Democracy Summer' of 1988. On 24 September as many as 100,000 protesters led by thousands of monks march in Rangoon.

The junta cracks down on 26 September. At least 15 people are killed, including a Japanese journalist, when the military resorts to violence to disperse the crowds, using tear gas and truncheons then opening fire with rubber bullets and live rounds. It is reported that Than Shwe has ordered the soldiers to shoot to kill. Opposition groups claim that hundreds are killed. Close to 3,000 people are arrested, including hundreds of monks.

At the start of November UN Special Rapporteur Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro is allowed to visit the country for the first time in four years. He estimates that at least 31 were killed in the crackdown. His report lists a further 74 persons who have disappeared and 653 who remain in custody.

Meanwhile, the constitutional convention concludes on 3 September with the release of a set of guidelines that entrench the power of the military and bar Suu Kyi from holding political office. A junta-appointed panel begins to draft the constitution in December.

On 11 October the UN Security Council issues a statement strongly deploring the crackdown on protesters and calling for the release of all political prisoners and the opening of "genuine dialogue" with Suu Kyi and other concerned parties. An earlier, stronger version of the statement had been watered-down at the instance of China and Russia.

The EU widens its limited sanctions on Burma on 15 October. The US extends its sanctions on 19 October and again in December.

2008 - In a surprise move, the junta announces on 9 February that a referendum on the new constitution will be held in May, to be followed by a multiparty, democratic election in 2010.

The constitution, which is finalised on 19 February, gives ultimate power to the army commander-in-chief, allocates 25% of the seats in parliament to military appointees and excludes Suu Kyi and others with marital links to foreign countries from standing for office.

Public servants and military personnel are ordered to vote in favour of the constitution. Opponents are threatened and arrested. The poll is to be administered by the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association. The junta forbids foreign observers.

On the evening of 2 May, eight days before the constitution referendum is scheduled to take place, a powerful cyclone blasts in from the Andaman Sea, crosses the Irrawaddy Delta and heads for Rangoon. Burma's southwest, the country's most populous and productive region, is devastated by winds that reach 190 kilometres per hour and by the 3.5 metre tidal surge and torrential rain that follows.

By 24 June the official death toll is 84,537. Another 53,836 are listed as missing. The Red Cross estimates that the final death toll could be as high as 128,000. (A later study by Local to Global Protection puts the figure at 200,000.) Over two million are estimated to be homeless.

The junta is slow to respond to the situation and reluctant to accept foreign assistance or allow foreign aid workers to travel to affected areas.

The US Embassy in Rangoon says that "Than Shwe is the problem." In a cable later obtained and released by the Wikileaks website, US Chargé d'Affaires Shari Villarosa tells Washington, "All roads lead to Senior General Than Shwe, who remains isolated and unaware of the scale of the catastrophe that has befallen his country.

"According to our contacts, Than Shwe is above all concerned with saving face and holding onto power. He does not want the Burma Army to be seen as needing assistance to deliver relief, and would rather let thousands of Burmese die than accept massive international assistance.

"Than Shwe's isolation and paranoia know no bounds. ... Other senior officials may passively sit by while thousands needlessly die rather than challenge Than Shwe."

Four weeks after the cyclone the UN estimates that more than one million Burmese remain in need of food, clean water, adequate shelter and medical care. US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates says that the junta's reluctance to accept foreign aid has cost "tens of thousands of lives" and is akin to "criminal neglect."

Despite the crisis, the junta insists that the constitution referendum go ahead on 10 May as scheduled in all but the hardest-hit areas (where the vote is held two weeks later). The result is never in doubt. According to the junta, 92% of eligible voters approve the document.

The NLD rejects the vote, saying the junta has used "coercion, intimidation, deception, misinformation and undue influence, abuse of power to get the affirmative vote."

In October and November the junta tries and sentences more than 70 activists, including many involved in the September 2007 demonstrations. Fourteen are sentenced to terms of 65 years.

Meanwhile, Sandar Win is released from house arrest.

2009 - On 6 May a US citizen, John William Yettaw, is arrested in Rangoon after reportedly swimming to Suu Kyi's lakeside house and staying there for two days.

On 14 May, just two weeks before her six-year term of detention is due to expire, Suu Kyi is arrested and taken to Insein prison. Suu Kyi is charged with breaching the terms of her detention by providing Yettaw with shelter. She faces between three and five years jail.

Suu Kyi's trial begins on 18 May at the Insein Special Court. The result is a foregone conclusion. On 11 August she is found guilty as charged and sentenced to a further 18 months of house arrest.

At the start of September Suu Kyi's legal team lodge an appeal against the conviction. The appeal is turned down. A second appeal is also rejected. A third appeal is lodged in May 2010.

2010 - On 29 March the NLD announces that it will boycott the national elections to be held in November. Under the junta's electoral laws, the decision means that the party will cease to formally exist after 6 May, the cut-off date for registration.

At the same time, the junta registers the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to represent its interests at the poll. The party derives from and replaces the Union Solidarity and Development Association, which is subsequently disbanded. Members of the junta begin to resign from the military so they can contest the elections as civilians.

The national election is held on 7 November. The junta claims a landslide victory for the USDP.

Suu Kyi is finally released from house arrest six days later, on 13 November.

Meanwhile, 'Foreign Policy' magazine names Than Shwe as the world's third worst dictator, describing him as a "heartless military coconut head whose sole consuming preoccupation is power."

"This vainglorious general bubbling with swagger sports a uniform festooned with self-awarded medals, but he is too cowardly to face an honest ballot box," the magazine says.

'Foreign Policy' ranks Korea's Kim Jong Il as the world's worst dictator. Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is ranked number two.

2011 - Burma's new parliament sits for the first time on 1 February. Thein Sein, a former general and close associate of Than Shwe, is appointed president. Than Shwe takes the reins of a new grouping, the State Supreme Council. The council will be the most powerful body in the country. In effect, it replaces the State Peace and Development Council, which is dissolved at the end of March, following the inauguration of the new government.

At the start of April, Than Shwe officially retires as commander-in-chief of the military. Although he now has no official role in the running of the government or military, it is believed he still wields considerable power behind the scenes.

2012 - Burma is listed as the fifth most corrupt nation in the world by the independent anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. Burma was ranked as the third most corrupt country in 2011, the second most corrupt in 2010, the third most corrupt in 2009, the second most corrupt in 2008, the most corrupt country in 2007, the second most corrupt in 2006, the third most corrupt in 2005, the fourth most corrupt in 2004 and the fifth most corrupt in 2003.

Ne Win's son-in-law and one grandson are released from prison in January. The pair, along with two other grandsons, were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002 after being charged with high treason for plotting a coup. The two remaining grandsons are released in November 2013.

Khin Nyunt is also released from house arrest in early 2012.

2013 - Than Shwe is reported to be in fine health and living peacefully.

According to USDP vice-chairman Htay Oo, while Than Shwe remains interested in politics, "it is not true that he does things behind the scenes."

2015 - The NLD wins a landslide victory in a general election held on 8 November, taking an absolute majority of seats in both houses of parliament and placing it in a position where it can govern in its own right.

Both the military and the incumbent government accept the result. In a surprise turn, Than Shwe holds a secret meeting with Suu Kyi. According to reports of the meeting Than Shwe tells Suu Kyi he supports her "with all my efforts" and "she will become the future leader of the country."

Comment

While SLORC then the SPDC may have taken over the day-to-day administration of Burma's military dictatorship when Ne Win "stepped down" in 1988, most observers believe that Ne Win continued on as the ultimate power behind the scenes, ably assisted by his enthusiastic if somewhat factious lieutenants. The processes he set in place continued, and were perhaps even amplified, following his death.

The result was corruption, mediocrity, social ruin, state-sponsored drug pedalling, self-enrichment, a complete disregard for civil and human rights, and a cynical manipulation of Burma's complex ethnic mix.

Ne Win learnt well from the British colonialists, applying their tried and tested policy of divide and rule to engineer his ascendancy and then subjugate and exploit those whose legitimate claims were used as the pretext for his rise.

In Ne Win's socialist state everyone was equally abused and equally suspicious. Nothing changed under Than Shwe. If anything the situation got worse. While the Burmese were squeezed ever more tightly, the international community, and the UN in particular, were made to look like fools by the junta's shadow plays.

Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell summed up the situation in an opinion piece titled 'It's Time to Turn the Tables on Burma's Thugs' that was published in the 'Wall Street Journal' on 12 June 2003.

"It is time to reassess our policy toward a military dictatorship that has repeatedly attacked democracy and jailed its heroes," Powell wrote.

"The junta that oppresses democracy in Burma must find that its actions will not be allowed to stand. ... Their refusal of the ... rights of Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters could not be clearer. Our response must be equally clear if the thugs who now rule Burma are to understand that their failure to restore democracy will only bring more and more pressure against them and their supporters."

For so many years it seemed that the junta would never bend or fall. The developments in the country since Than Shwe's retirement and, in particular, since Aung San Suu Kyi's release in November 2010 have been unexpected, rapid and even somewhat shocking, and there is still an unsettling sense that they are too good to be true. One can only hope that they are not and that there will be no reversal of fortune for Suu Kyi and the Burmese people during the struggles that lie ahead. For there is still very much injustice to overcome.

Political arrests continue. There has been no final settlement with the Shan, Karen and Kachin and other ethnic groups. Armed conflict continues. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced because of the ethnic conflicts. The Rohingya Muslim minority face severe, often violent discrimination and are denied citizenship. Most of the repressive legislation from the old regime remains on the books. Human rights abuses continue, including arbitrary detention, land confiscation, rape and torture. Spending on the military accounts for about 25% of the government's budget. Children are still being recruited as soldiers.

While President Thein Sein has been applauded as a reformer many remain sceptical and suspect that under his leadership progress may stall, and not by accident but by intent. Thein Sein's past is deeply enmeshed with the junta and he has been compromised. He is a former secretary of the SPDC, former prime minister, former chair of the constitutional convention and leader of the USDP. He was handpicked for the presidency by Than Shwe.

While a major in Light Infantry Division 55, Thein Sein participated in the violent crackdown against the 'Rangoon Spring' protests of 1988. During his time as military commander in Shan State in the late 1990s there were widespread human rights abuses in areas under his control, including rape, forced relocation and land confiscation. A report by the UN in September 1998 named Thein Sein as directly ordering the confiscation of land and rice fields.