Emerging as an independent nation in 1948 soaked in the blood of World War II’s Japanese occupation and a bloody post-colonial conflict with the waning British Empire, Burma (also known as Myanmar) had barely over a decade of democracy under its belt before a “bloodless” military coup saw elected prime minister U Nu overthrown by his former ally and chief of staff General Ne Win.
Trained alongside Aung San – the charismatic father of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi – by the Japanese as part of their claim to be liberating Asia from European interference, the ethnically Chinese Shu Maung took on the nom de guerre Ne Win (‘Radiant Son’) and learnt his trade as part of the Burma Independence Army. After the true nature of Japan’s ‘liberation’ became apparent, the BIA – newly renamed the Burma National Army- joined the Allies.
The independence they craved arrived in 1948 and with it anarchy as factions jostled for power and rivals turned on each other.
After leading a “caretaker” government from 1958 to 1960 designed to hold the rudder before the troubled waters of a general election, Ne Win evidently decided he enjoyed the soft upholstery of high office and deposed Prime Minister U Nu two years later with the help of the army, declaring both martial law and that “parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Burma.”
The ‘Bamboo Curtain’ had come down, separating Burma from the rest of the world and transforming it into one of the least developed nations on earth.
The Burmese Way to Socialism – the new government’s guiding political philosophy – wedded the traditionally atheist tenants of Marxism with superstitions rooted in Buddhism and folklore, and a cynical helping of nationalism, militarism and xenophobia. Industry was nationalised, foreigners were ejected, private property was seized and while elements of China’s totalitarian communist rule were emulated, Burma’s own communists were criminalised leaving only one game in town for the new single-party state: the Burma Socialist Programme Party.
Ne Win, who ruled until he was himself overthrown in 1988, embodied this schizophrenic mixture of disparate political theories and religious convictions. A megalomaniac with lavish tastes for gambling, golf, money (he amassed an estimated fortune of $4 billion) and women (he was married six times, twice to the same woman), he was also prone to violent rages – throwing an ashtray at one wife’s throat, assaulting an underling he believed was flirting with his wife, and personally breaking up a Christmas Eve party held by foreign diplomats and tearing a woman’s dress as he shoved her to the floor.
So far so typical for a 20th Century despot, but Ne Win was anything but. Devoted to numerology, astrology and yadaya – a form of Burmese ritual magic that draws heavily on those two disciplines – Ne Win’s decisions were guided not only by politicians, generals and civil servants, but by soothsayers.
“He had a kind of nutty candour and some idea of the rest of the world, however limited,” recalled New York Times editor Joseph Lelyveld. “He was highly regarded in those [early] days. No one suspected he’d prove to be as erratic as he later showed himself to be. Most Western diplomats regarded him as a modernising figure… they were of course spectacularly wrong.”
Writing in Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience, Justin Wintle recalls that when a soothsayer warned the dictator that he risked assassination, Ne Win would stand in front of a mirror and shoot his image with the revolver he kept at his side. When warned of a bloodbath, he was advised stand in front of the mirror and trample on dog entrails or in a bowl of pig’s blood to simulate the carnage.
The use of dog entrails was no coincidence either, whenever he travelled the country (whether in a fleet of helicopter or vast armoured motorcade of jeeps and limos) he would have all the stray dogs in the location slaughtered by his men prior to his arrival. His soothsayer had told him to steer clear of dogs, especially ones with crooked tails.
Other stories recounted by visitors to the country include Nei Win ordering a pilot to circle around his birthplace while he sat in the plane on a wooden horse, stepping backwards onto bridges or walking around the streets of Burma’s capital Rangoon at night dressed as a king.
Perhaps the most bizarre, evocative and downright ghoulish story surrounding the dictator is that he bathed in the blood of dolphins which he believed would keep him young, like some surreal Burmese answer to Countess Bathory.
According to The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation by Rena Pederson, in 1970 he ordered cars switch from driving on the left to the right as an astrologer warned him that the country had turned too far to the left. Another account maintains that he was told ‘danger would come from the right.’ Either way, accidents followed as his people struggled to keep up.
Ultimately though, it was his dogged determination to let portents dictate his political decisions that cost him his rule.
Believing on the recommendations of an astrologer that nine was an auspicious number (or that he would live to be 90 – there’s conflicting accounts), in 1987 Ne Win ordered the 100 kyat banknote removed from circulation and replaced by notes in 45 and 90 kyat denominations – both divisible by nine and with numerals that add up to nine. Many had their savings wiped out as the 100 kyat became worthless, crippling Burma’s anaemic economy.
The only people who seemed to be prospering were the black marketeers and smugglers who built empires out of a booming illegal trade in heroin and rubies, and the steadily multiplying bands of guerillas chipping away at government control from their jungle redoubts, and the ageing president for life.
Enough was enough. In 1988 people took to the streets in protest and in the upheaval of the 8888 Uprising Ne Win was forced to step down, handing over the reigns to an less flamboyant dictator, Saw Maung. Over 3,000 protestors had been killed and many more rounded up, but the cracks were to wide to be papered over and Burma had begun its slow journey out of the dark.
Ne Win died under house arrest in 2002, but his presence lingers on as the nation takes its uneasy steps toward full democracy.