Historical antecedents

The internal dynamics apparent in the regime today have their roots in the period of General Ne Win’s rule. The former top leader General Ne Win (1962–88) had the idea of using the military as a vehicle to unite the country. This idea led him to carry out the 1962 coup, ending the post-independence period of democratic constitutional rule.[1] He first placed the country directly under military rule (the Revolutionary Council, 1962–74), but the country later came under his personal rule. He oversaw the indoctrination of military officers through the use of military curriculums that asserted that only military might could ultimately save the ethnically diverse country from disintegration and disunity. At the same time, he enforced unity in the military and was quick to remove anyone he perceived as having an opinion different from his own.

A year after the coup, the number two in the junta leadership, Brigadier-General Aung Gyi, and his faction were dismissed or transferred to inactive posts because Aung Gyi disagreed with Ne Win’s economic policies of nationalisation (Lintner 1994). This was the beginning of the military’s economic mismanagement of the country, which ultimately resulted in great poverty in one of the most promising and resource-rich countries in South-East Asia.

In the mid-1970s, the Defence Minister and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Tin Oo (the current Vice-Chairman of the main opposition party), who was regarded as the third-ranking member of the ruling oligarchy, and his faction were also dismissed (Silverstein 1977).General Tin Oo’s popularity as a real soldier was growing in the military and among the population. It appeared that Ne Win suspected that Tin Oo preferred an apolitical professional military.[2] A group of young military officers, frustrated with the military’s mismanagement of the economy and who were close to Tin Oo, made a failed coup attempt against Ne Win. Tin Oo was officially accused of withholding knowledge of the plot. After the purge, indirect military rule with a constitutional one-party socialist system (from 1974–88), led by retired General Ne Win, was instituted without any internal resistance, because other generals were afraid of being sacked.

In 1983, former Military Intelligence Chief Brigadier-General Tin Oo and his faction were also sacked for becoming too powerful, although they were charged publicly with corruption (Selth 2002). Tin Oo was often referred to as ‘number one and a half’, and he and his faction were perceived as rivals to Ne Win and his family’s power and privileges.[3] After that, Ne Win severely reduced the power of the military intelligence. Perhaps as a result, the military intelligence was not able to prevent the North Korean assassination attack against the South Korean official delegation in Rangoon in 1983. The weakened capacity of the intelligence service to gather and report information and coordinate their work seems to have made it easier for underground activists to network secretly. At the same time, the government’s economic failures set the stage for the countrywide pro-democracy uprising that took place in 1988. The uprising was sparked by the government’s desperate decision to demonetise major bank notes, which severely affected the general population. The ensuing demonstrations were violently suppressed by the military.

[1] Interview with a family member of a close associate of General Ne Win, 10 November 2007.

[2] Interview with a former military intelligence officer who was close to Brigadier-General Tin Oo, the former military intelligence chief, 30 July 2007.

[3] Interview with a former military intelligence officer who was close to Brigadier-General Tin Oo, 30 July 2007.