Ne Win


Burma is incorporated into the British Empire in 1886. 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. Burma's many tribal minorities are resistant to centralised control. Instability sets in almost immediately. 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.

Ne Win marries seven times. His second wife, Khin May Than, bears him three children - Sandar Win, Kyemon Win and Phyoe Wai Win.

1930 - In the mid-1930s Ne Win becomes involved in the struggle for independence from Britain, joining the Dobama Asiayone (Our Burma Association), where he meets nationalist leader Aung San. Aung San becomes Burma's most famous independence hero. Sixty years later his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, also becomes a democracy icon.

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. Before returning to Burma each member of the group selects a nom de guerre (assumed name). Shu Maung selects Ne Win, meaning Brilliant as the Sun or Sun of Glory. He is known by this name for the rest of his life.

On 7 December, the Japanese air force bombs the United States naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. 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 control of Burma is restored in August. The push by the nationalists for independence resumes. 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. Independence is in sight. 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 east, near the border with Thailand. The Shan are based in the Shan plateau, north of the Karen and near the borders with China, Laos and Thailand.

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

1950 - 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, amid increasing government paralysis and growing civil unrest, 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.

Despite the political instability of the period, the economy prospers, with growth averaging more than 6% during the 1950s.

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

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. He rules by decree. The country goes into self-imposed isolation 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 Phnom 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. However, Ne Win 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 continues to supervise 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.

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 - 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 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 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 under martial law. Than Shwe is vice-chairman. Khin Nyunt is first secretary. Ne Win remains a powerful backroom influence. It is later reported that Saw 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. Suu Kyi is made party leader. She advocates nonviolent protest, urges the United Nations to intervene and accuses Ne Win of controlling SLORC behind the scenes.

Suu Kyi becomes the principal spokesperson for the democracy movement and a principle target for the junta's repression. On 20 July 1989 she is placed under house arrest in Rangoon for "endangering the state". She is held in custody for 15 of the next 21 years.

1989 - In June the junta changes the country's name from Burma to the Union of Myanmar. The name of the capital is changed from Rangoon to Yangon.

A "four cuts" policy is introduced 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 military 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 outpolls the junta's preferred party by almost three votes to one and wins 80% of the seats. 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 - Saw Maung falls in April. 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. The first session of the national constitutional convention is held on 9 January 1993. Little progress is made over the coming years. The NLD walks out of the convention in November 1995, arguing that the proceedings are undemocratic and the draft constitution would entrench military control of the government. The convention is completely suspended on 31 March 1996.

1994 - 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 is just one in a long line of similar reports documenting human rights abuses in Burma. In 1998 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports that forced labour is "widespread and systematic" in Burma. The Human Rights Watch World Report for 2005 describes Burma as "one of the most repressive countries in Asia".

In May 2005 British researcher Guy Horton publishes his report 'Dying Alive: A Legal Assessment of Human Rights Violations in Burma' (PDF). Based on intensive research, including a secret four-month excursion from Thailand into Burma, the 600-page report accuses the junta of committing genocide in the Shan, Karen and Karenni provinces.

Later in 2005, the executive director of the World Food Program reports that 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.

Various reports document the tactics used by the military in its campaigns against ethnic tribes. The UN Security Council hears that villages are routinely destroyed. In 2006, 'The Washington Post' reports that "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 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.

1996 - The junta cracks down on the NLD. Over 1,000 NLD members and supporters are arrested or detained between May and November.

Large-scale student demonstrations against the junta break out in October. They continue until the end of the year.

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. Both the EU and US sanctions are progressively extended over time.

However, the Association of South East Asian Nations takes a conciliatory line, admitting Burma as a full member on 23 July.

In September Ne Win travels to Indonesia for talks with President Suharto. The Suharto family has extensive business interests in Burma, including the sale of cars and construction of toll roads. Suharto complains to Ne Win 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). Than Shwe is chairman. Maung Aye is deputy chairman. Khin Nyunt is first secretary.

The reshuffle allows Than Shwe to consolidate his power.

2000 - UN-brokered talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta take place 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 a guarantee of immunity from prosecution for past human rights abuses.

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

2002 - 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 the death penalty 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. Two months later the era of Ne Win draws to a complete close.

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.

Sandar Win remains under house arrest until 2008. The death sentences given to Ne Win's son-in-law and grandsons are commuted to life imprisonment. The son-in-law and one grandson are released from jail in January 2012. The two remaining grandsons are released in November 2013.


2004 - 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 invited to attend. The NLD declines, throwing the meeting's legitimacy into question.

Meanwhile, Than Shwe continues to consolidate his position. Rivals are sidelined or replaced. Khin Nyunt is charged with insubordination and corruption, removed from office and put under house arrest. By the end of the year, Than Shwe has undisputed authority over Burma.

2007 - 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 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. The United Nations later estimates that at least 31 were killed in the crackdown.

Meanwhile, the constitutional convention concludes on 3 September with the release of a set of guidelines that entrench the power of the military. A junta-appointed panel begins to draft the constitution 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 is finalised on 19 February. It gives ultimate power to the army commander-in-chief and allocates 25% of the seats in parliament to unelected military appointees.

The referendum is held on 10 May. According to the junta, 92% of eligible voters approve the document.

2010 - Burma now prepares for its first national election since 1990. While the NLD announces it will boycott the poll, the junta registers the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to represent its interests. 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.

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

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. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is dissolved at the end of March, following the inauguration of the new government.

Than Shwe officially retires as commander-in-chief of the military at the start of April. 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.

He is later 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 seemingly govern in its own right. However, real power in Burma abides with the military. The military remains in control of the state's entire security apparatus. It holds the defence, home affairs and border affairs ministries. It retains a veto over constitutional change and it has the right to place the country under martial law at any time.


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.

For so many years it seemed that the junta would never bend or fall. When change did come it was unexpected and even somewhat shocking. It all seemed too good to be true. It was. Subsequent events have shown that behind a veil of representative democracy, the military continues to hold the real levers of power. No where is this more apparent than Rakhine State in western Burma where an uprising by Rohingya Muslims in 2016 led to a disproportionate reaction by Burma's military that the elected government seemed unable or unwilling to control or even moderate. Using tactics developed over decades, the military forced about 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in one of the biggest exercises of "ethnic cleansing" in recent history.

The military also seems to have succeeded in coopting previous opponents and critics like Aung San Suu Kyi into its program. The one-time democracy icon, who had been compared to Mahatma Gandhi, is now just as likely to be described as an apologist for ethnic cleansing or a handmaiden to genocide.

Burma's ongoing problems do not stop with the Rohingya. 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. 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.