This is the fifth 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.
Following of Tin Oo’s removal, Col Aung Koe was the spy chief, but he soon fell from grace when a bombing took place at Aung San’s Martyr’s Mausoleum. “Where the hell was he?” Ne Win asked. The reply was that Aung Koe was playing golf, which prompted Ne Win to ask a second question: “Can we get someone who doesn’t play golf and doesn’t drink?”
Brig-Gen Tint Swe, the Minister for Industry (1), proposed his former personal security officer, Khin Nyunt, a young, charming and ambitious colonel who previously served in the War Office in the 1970s and was currently serving in the 44th Light Infantry Division in Karen State. Khin Nyunt was educated at Rangoon University before joining the army, and Lee Kuan Yew once called him “The most intelligent of the lot.”
Ne Win, who was then over 70, did not know Khin Nyunt but soon began to trust the young, efficient and loyal officer. Khin Nyunt became Ne Win’s gatekeeper and was seen accompanying the dictator on overseas trips beginning as early as 1984. When Ne Win received medical treatment in Cromwell Hospital in London in 1986 (the dictator’s last visit to the UK capital), Khin Nyunt hid a pistol in his jacket and stayed in the hospital overnight.
When Ne Win went to meet Princess Alexandra in London, Khin Nyunt was seen sitting obediently in a Mercedes Benz opposite Ne Win and his daughter. Accompanying Ne Win and many top BSPP leaders on trips to the West allowed Khin Nyunt to learn the thinking of the regime’s inner circle and, just as importantly, the outside world.
While Tin Oo was rising to and falling from power and Khin Nyunt was becoming spy chief, Than Shwe was slowly, steadily and mostly anonymously working his way up the regime hierarchy. After becoming a lieutenant colonel in the 88th Light Infantry Division in Shan State, he returned to the War Office in 1975, this time at level G1.
Officers there said they barely noticed Than Shwe, although they did observe that he still brought his betel nut to work, was one of the few officers who talked about Buddhism and didn’t join the others when they were having a drink after work, preferring to go home to his wife and young kids.
Since the time of their marriage, Kyaing Kyaing had been the guardian of Than Shwe’s house, managing everything from dawn to dusk, and she took her household duties to include keeping a close watch over her husband’s career. In doing so, Kyaing Kyaing often saw palm readers, astrologers and monks to read her husband’s future and provide advice on how to achieve the best outcome—an activity that is almost custom among Burmese army officers’ wives.
Around 1980, Kyaing Kyaing went with a group of officers’ wives to meet U Nyan Zaw, a famous astrologer, who told her that Than Shwe would one day become the king of Burma. At first, Kyaing Kyaing didn’t believe the prediction, and fearing that her husband would be purged if it ever became public, she didn’t tell anyone what the astrologer said.
But she later went back alone to U Nyan Zaw, and after once again reading Than Shwe’s stars and Z’tar (a calculation of planetary positions at the time of a person’s birth that is written on a palm leaf), he said, “He is going to be number one,” and advised Kyaing Kyaing to help her husband along the way.
Kyaing Kyaing was not the first person close to Than Shwe’s who believed he would someday rule Burma. His elder sister, Kyee Khin, said that when Than Shwe was born he had a sash of moles which Burmese traditionally believe foretell that the newborn will be king one day. Kyee Khin told relatives in Kyaukse that she believed her younger brother one day would become king of the country.
While Than Shwe was still almost laughably far away from replacing Ne Win as dictator, following Kyaing Kyaing’s visit to U Nyan Zaw he appeared to be at least heading in the direction of entering the upper echelon of the Burmese regime. In 1980, Than Shwe became the commander of the 88th Light Infantry Division at the age of 47.
And then in 1983, the year that Ne Win’s heir apparent Tin Oo was removed, Than Shwe became head of the Southwest Command in the Irrawaddy Delta—a position that officers were often posted to before being promoted to top-ranked positions at the War Office.
From outward appearances, however, one would think the man-who-would-be-king of Burma was aspiring to be a mid-level bureaucrat. Officers who worked closely with Than Shwe in the Irrawaddy Delta recalled he was mostly interested in building roads and bridges, and when he gave public speeches they would be long-winded affairs praising the success of the socialist party.
He was also far from the cloistered, paranoid man he would become in the future: his house was open to all and visitors would see him sitting on his couch with family members, flipping through TIME magazine or official bulletins delivered from Rangoon.
Then in 1985, there was a meeting to select a new commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces. With many of Burma’s most talented officers having been purged, to keep the system going Ne Win and the other regime leaders had to bring several young officers to the top level. Not caring whether they were intelligent or good people, Ne Win emphasized it was sufficient to be loyal, not allied to factions in the armed forces and not troublesome to the throne.
Ne Win walked into the room where the commanders were having a discussion and asked: “Who is the youngest in your group?” The answer was “Bulldog,” Than Shwe’s nickname. Subsequently, Than Shwe was promoted to deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces and Saw Maung became commander-in-chief.
Neither man had attended university, and when they decided to promote Saw Maung, Ne Win warned his officers: “You better teach him how to handle a fork and knife [at the reception] and take him to attend some diplomatic receptions to open his eyes and learn a lesson or two.”
Many officers believed Saw Maung and Than Shwe were selected because Ne Win thought that he and his men at the top could handle them. With respect to Than Shwe, he was young and seemingly non-threatening—never questioning authority, he appeared to be the perfect “yes man” to maintain the corrupt system and keep New Win in power.
But the gambler Ne Win didn’t realize that he was betting on the wrong horse and promoting the person who would one day place him under house arrest and let him die in detention.