This is the sixth 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.
Rumor had it that Sein Lwin, who was also from the 4th Burma Rifles, was the one who helped read the stars and the Z’tar of young officers who were poised for promotion and inform Ne Win whether any of them were pretenders to the throne.
It is not known whether Sein Lwin personally checked Than Shwe’s stars and Z’tar—according to some astrologers, he would usually consult a government astrologer, Yankin Tin Aung, about who to appoint or reject. Apparently in Than Shwe’s case, a dictator-in-waiting slipped through the regime’s astrological cracks.
Indeed, in 1986 many people in Burma still knew nothing about the low-profile Than Shwe and his family. Even though revolution was less than two years away and Burmese campuses are a breeding ground for rebellion, Than Shwe’s daughter Kyi Kyi Shwe still attended classes at Regional College Number Two in Rangoon, although she did arrive each day in a Mazda 323 Sedan—which the government then provided to family members of high-ranking officials.
Like Kyi Kyi Shwe, many sons and daughters of high ranking officials either drove themselves to school or had chauffeurs. They were taught to be aware of whom they hung out with on campus and how they should behave, but most were friendly and would regularly come to the canteen.
When they did, however, student activists didn’t discuss politics and didn’t open their school bags, which even in 1986 and 1987 were filled with subversive materials such as anti-government leaflets. This was the calm before the storm, and Kyi Kyi Shwe and her colleagues wouldn’t know who their friends and foes were until 1988.
At one point, some of Kyi Kyi Shwe’s student friends were invited to her house and reported back that they had seen Than Shwe walking on the lawn and his wife Kyaing Kyaing taking care of the kitchen, and it appeared that the family lived a very boring, simple lifestyle with no idea what was happening outside of their sheltered the environment.
“They read love story novels and seem to have plenty of extra time, but they do nothing at home and complain that life is boring. They have absolutely no idea of life around them, and just think they are lucky and they have this life now because they have done good deeds in the past and the poor people are unlucky and subjects of the state because they have committed so many sins in a past life,” said one female student who visited the Than Shwe household.
At that time, there were many “unlucky” people in Burma who were essentially slaves of the state. The economy wasn’t going well and the country had dropped far behind its neighbors. With respect to his failed economic policies, Ne Win once famously said: “It was like having caught hold of a tiger’s tail,” meaning that once the “Burmese Way to Socialism” had been adopted there was nothing else he could do but hang on to it. So Ne Win hung on and the country became one of the poorest nations in the world.
Ne Win’s “neutral foreign policy” didn’t gain the country many friends either, but some allies were at least close to the regime enough to offer some helpful advice—which of course went unheeded. Singapore elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew encouraged the new generation of officers to reform the economy, but nothing happened.
And he also advised Burma’s Prime Minister Maung Maung Kha, who had no authority, to open up the country to tourism. The prime minister politely told Lee that he would report back Ne Win, but it was suspected that he never dared do so.
In August 1987, exactly one year before the full-blown 1988 uprising, Ne Win admitted in a brief public speech that all was not well in Burma and that mistakes had been made under his rule. Although he was brave enough to concede his blunders, it was too late to reverse course—the dictator had built a strong and brutal armed forces and an efficient secret police that had become a club of authoritarian rulers who would never willingly relinquish power.
Sadly, if Ne Win had admitted his failure in the early 1980s and taken aggressive action to reform and open up the country, the story of Burma could have been very different. If the 1988 uprising never took place because by then it had become unnecessary, Saw Maung, a former electrician who was a loyal and honest soldier, probably would have served his full term and left the post.
The former postal clerk Than Shwe would have followed suit and, like Saw Maung, soon disappeared from public view. And Khin Nyunt would have finished his term as intelligence chief and served as an ambassador somewhere.
But that’s not what happened, and when the demonstrations began in March 1988, family members of high-ranking officials and army leaders were advised to stay at home. Kyi Kyi Shwe stopped going to the college campus, and Than Shwe’s family was rumored to have stayed in their house behind locked doors for weeks—with a speedboat ready on Inya Lake in back for a quick getaway—until the military staged its coup.
The house was well fortified and built on a hill at the dead end of the street—perfect from a military security standpoint as the inhabitants and their security detail could oversee and monitor incoming visitors and strangers.
Another of Than Shwe’s daughters, who also studied at Rangoon University, said soldiers and army officers who guarded the house were ready to gun down any student who dared approach during the uprising. “If students come, we can shoot them since we are situated a hill,” she told shocked friends, without showing any expression.
In September 1988, Ne Win summoned Saw Maung, Than Shwe, Khin Nyunt and other top brass to his home and ordered them to organize a coup, which they carried out swiftly, efficiently and brutally.
Following the coup, the military government effectively relocated several colleges and universities and shut down private and state-owned hostels—the breeding ground of underground student political activism. Several new colleges were opened in remote areas and the Distance Education system was vigorously reinforced, effectively dismembering student activist organizations.
When Kyi Kyi Shwe returned to college, she found that some of her old colleagues had become members of the NLD and kept their distance from her—an invisible wall had sprung up between former friends that was impossible to scale. At home, Kyi Kyi Shwe’s parents advised family members not to engage the public and be discreet for security reasons.
To keep safe, she began skipping classes regularly, but could still be spotted shopping with her sisters in Rangoon’s Scott Market, better known as Bogyoke (market)—Than Shwe’s daughters were not yet notorious: i.e. had not yet stormed gold shops in the market and demanded the owners shower them with merchandise.
Although the uprising limited Kyi Kyi Shwe’s life as a student, her life at home was not idle. Kyaing Kyaing, being in-charge of the household, proposed five bachelors as potential husbands—all with a military background. In the early 1990s, Kyi Kyi Shwe married a handsome young army doctor named Nay Soe Maung who had been educated at Rangoon Medical Science University and also studied in Queensland, Australia. His father was retired Major General Tin Sein, who served under Ne Win.
Kyi Kyi Shwe and Nay Soe Maung soon had a son, Nay Shwe Thwe Aung, who is now better known as Pho La Pyae and has become Than Shwe’s infamous favorite grandson. But the doctor and the daughter of the soon to be dictator came from different worlds and their families didn’t get along, so the marriage didn’t last long.
After the break-up, Nay Soe Maung became a lieutenant colonel and a lecturer at the University of Public Health, Ministry of Health. He also became a writer and mingled with some artists and writers in Rangoon. He was always seen as helpful to many of his colleagues, and some speculated that he wanted to show that he was different from Burma’s top family.