Ne Win (born 1911) was a Burmese general and political leader who twice seized power from elected premier U Nu and ruled Burma (now Myanmar) as a repressive and isolationist socialist government until he resigned in 1988.
Born in Prome, Burma (now Myanmar), Ne Win was named Shu Maung by his parents. An ardent but little-known nationalist agitator in the 1930s, he failed to complete his degree at the University of Rangoon. In the 1930s, as Thakin (Master) Shu Maung, he was a member of the Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association), which became the most extreme and energetic nationalist group fighting British colonial rule.
In 1941 Ne Win, then still known as Thakin Shu Maung, was selected by Aung San, the de facto leader of the younger wing of the Burmese nationalist movement, to go to Japan for training and to return with the Japanese the next year to oust the British from Burma. Aung San and the 29 young men who went to Japan with him became known in Burma as the legendary "Thirty Comrades." Shu Maung, one of the oldest of the Thirty Comrades, adopted a new name that served both as disguise and symbolism, Ne Win, meaning "bright sun."
Returning to Burma with the Japanese, Aung San, and the Burma Independence Army in 1942, Ne Win became commander of the renamed Burma Defense Army under Japan in 1943. Its original commander, Aung San, accepted the position of war minister in Ba Maw's newly proclaimed "independent" government. Ne Win remained in the titular role of commander when Aung San led this force, now called the patriot Burmese Forces, into armed opposition against the Japanese in 1945.
Rise in the Military
Distinguishing himself in his military service, Ne Win was taken into the regular army after World War II as a major. He became second-in-command of the 4th Burma Rifles and rose quickly to commanding officer. Elected in 1947 to the Constituent Assembly to frame a constitution for an independent Burma, he soon spurned representative politics and turned all his attention to his military responsibilities.
Promoted to brigadier general in 1948, the year Burma attained its independence, Ne Win in February 1949 became commander of the armed forces, with a rank of major general. As various ethnic minorities and communists launched rebellions against the government in 1949-1950, Gen. Ne Win served as minister for defense and for home affairs under Premier U Nu. Together with U Nu, Ne Win made the Burmese armed forces powerful enough to reduce the size of the various insurgent groups by the mid-1950s.
In 1958, pressed by key subordinates who saw an increase in the insurgent threat following a split in U Nu's government party, Ne Win ousted the popular elected leader in a bloodless coup. Ne Win permitted the holding of elections in February 1960, however, and U Nu won. Ne Win left his post of caretaker premier in April 1960.
On March 2, 1962, Gen. Ne Win deposed U Nu a second time. This time, he abolished Parliament and the constitution, jailed most of the civilian politicians for four to six years, and embarked on a crash course of socialist development. Known as the "Burmese Way to Socialism," Ne Win's isolationist policies were opposed both by U Nu and the Communists. His policies brought the country's export economy to a virtual standstill and necessitated food rationing to avoid famine in a country once rich in rice.
By 1971, Ne Win had transformed Burma into a one-party police state run by his Burma Socialist Programme Party. Under a new constitution in 1974, he installed himself as president and kept that title until 1981. He continued to rule until July 1988, when massive demonstrations against his repressive regime forced him to resign. Under his rule Myanmar went from one of Southeast Asia's most developed nations to one of its poorest. The once-wealthy nation was granted least developed country status by the United Nations in 1987.
Even after his resignation, Ne Win played a major role in a violent September 1988 coup led by his crony Gen. Saw Maung that returned the army to power and shut down the pro-democracy movement, shooting, torturing and jailing thousands of its followers. Even into his 80s, Ne Win was widely assumed to be steering the new regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which, in the assessment of Susan Blaustein in the Nation, "may have outdone its mentor [Ne Win] in alienating Burma's population, isolating the country and savaging its economy." Foreign journalists were banned from visiting, and a 1990 election was assumed to be rigged. Myanmar's government was repeatedly cited for human rights violations. As Ne Win recedes from view, his repressive legacy remains strong.
Further Reading on Ne Win
Frank N. Trager, Burma, from Kingdom to Republic (1966); Richard Butwell, U Nu of Burma (1969); Willard A. Hanna, Eight Nation Makers: Southeast Asia's Charismatic Statesmen (1964); Maung Maung, Burma's Constitution (1959); F.M. Bunge, Burma: A Country Study (1983).