This is the second installment in the The Dictators series by The Irrawaddy that delves into the lives and careers of Burma’s two most infamous military chiefs and the cohorts that surrounded them.
On what was probably a rainy day in July 1953, Second Lieutenant Than Shwe began serving in the Light Infantry Division No. 1. He traveled to Karen and Shan states and fought against ethnic insurgents, and while several officers confirmed that Than Shwe was a battle-shy officer, over the next five years he managed to rise to the rank of captain.
Then in February 1958, Than Shwe received an order to come to Rangoon, where his new assignment was to study at the Psychological Warfare Department with Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing as his new bosses.
Meanwhile, while attending their annual meeting in Meikhtila in 1956, the Burmese army’s commanding officers learned that Ne Win had a plan to set up a new government and it was just a matter of time before a coup occurred.
Ne Win didn’t believe in either socialism or Buddhism, but he wanted to have a political ideology and doctrine to lead and steer the country once he took over state power. He relied heavily on Ba Than, Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing to develop military doctrine and socialist ideology, and he and his trusted colleagues believed that socialism was the best ideology to introduce to the country.
Ne Win told Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing, however, that he didn’t want to repeat the blunder of Burmese communists who blindly copied Marxist ideology and followed it dogmatically. He also didn’t want to follow former Prime Minister U Nu, who wanted to introduce Buddhism as the country’s official religion.
But since most of the Burmese people were Buddhist, he wanted to make sure Buddhist philosophy would be included in the new political ideology. So Ne Win requested that Chit Hlaing and Saw Oo prepare a socialist ideology that incorporated Buddhist tenets and could be adapted to Burmese culture and society. The eventual result was the middle path introduced by Saw Oo in the “Burmese Way to Socialism.”
The young Capt Than Shwe reportedly got along well with Saw Oo and was soon sent to Mandalay to become head of the division-level Psychological Warfare Department. Burma then had two commands: north and south. In 1959, Ne Win’s protégé Col San Yu became commander of the Northern Command where Than Shwe was posted, and Chit Hlaing recalled that Than Shwe served under San Yu and had direct communication with his boss.
In March 1962, General Ne Win followed through with his earlier plan and overthrew U Nu’s government in a military coup. Then in July, Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council announced the formation of the BSPP, whose members were none other than Ne Win and his loyal army officers.
The following year, San Yu sent Than Shwe back to the newly opened Central School of Political Science, which in 1971 was upgraded to become an institute, in Mingaladon, a suburb of Rangoon. And in December 1963, Than Shwe reported back to his former bosses Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing, who were now posted at the school.
Than Shwe was named chief of the Political History Department, and his duty was to teach new cadres political history and the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” At the time, the doctrine was known as Nama-Rupa—nāma refers to the psychological elements of a human being and rūpa refers to the physical. The Buddhist nāma and rūpa are mutually dependent and not separable: as nāmarūpa, they designate an individual being.
Than Shwe taught classes every morning, and Chit Hlaing observed that the young captain had not changed much from his OTS days—his students sometimes found it quite awkward to have a conversation with him. But despite the fact that Than Shwe rarely voiced his political inclinations, Chit Hlaing believed he was pragmatic, patriotic and a faithful follower of the “Burmese Way to Socialism.”
Than Shwe normally refrained from rocking the boat, but he voiced a desire to go back to the infantry division where he would have a better opportunity for rapid promotion to a powerful position. His wish was fulfilled in January 1969, when he became a major and was assigned to the 77th Light Infantry Division in Karen State. As part of his new assignment, Than Shwe traveled to the Irrawaddy Delta, Pegu Yoma, Karen State and Mon State.
In Mon State, Than Shwe met his beloved wife Kyaing Kyaing and instantly fell in love. She was the second youngest of 11 siblings; her father Kyuu Tin was pure Chinese and her mother Daw Bwa May was Pa-O. Bwa May didn’t know the young officer, but after using her sources in the War Office to check his background, she gave the green light for Than Shwe to marry her daughter.
In December 1969, Than Shwe was summoned back to Rangoon to work in the War Office, where he was promoted to major at level G2 and given responsibility for managing operations in the Irrawaddy Delta and Arakan State. At that time, the military launched the Shwe Linn Yone, or “Golden Eagle Operation,” to flush out insurgents in the delta and cut the rebel link between the delta and Arakan State.
Than Shwe and the other G2 officers in the War Office had more mundane, but still intriguing, responsibilities at the time as well. The mild-mannered San Yu was hard working but paranoid, and wanted the G2 officers to read letters coming from the frontline and military families and keep watch for poisoned mail. San Yu sometimes instructed the officers to investigate suspicious letters, even sending them to army battalions and frontline zones to do so.
In the 1970s, although Ne Win still enjoyed strong backing in the armed forces, his popularity plummeted among the public and there was unrest on the streets of Rangoon between 1974 and 1976, first due to labor disputes and then triggered by the death of U Thant, the retired Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Ne Win and U Thant lived in different worlds—Ne Win was a college dropout and army hero who launched a military coup; the respected diplomat was once a teacher and served under former Prime Minister U Nu, who Ne Win removed. One time when U Thant returned home from his New York office, Ne Win refused to meet him, and when Gen Tin Oo met U Thant and instantly admired him, Ne Win was reportedly furious.
When U Thant died in New York in 1974 and his body was flown back to Burma to be buried, Ne Win refused to hold a state funeral for him. There were even hints by government authorities that it was illegal to bring the body back to Burma and the government might take action against the family members of U Thant if they attempted to do so. Finally, however, the government agreed to bury U Thant in a private cemetery.
Students were upset and took U Thant’s coffin to Rangoon University. In an event that quickly became an anti-government gathering, they demanded he be honored in a dignified manner. Finally, the government agreed to build a mausoleum at the foot of Shwedagon Pagoda, where several prominent leaders, including Aung Sanand his slain cabinet members, were buried.
But a radical student faction refused this gesture and decided to bury U Thant’s body on campus at the site of the demolished student union building. But more turmoil was just around the corner.