Myanmar: Ne Win’s Last Days

2001

Professor David I. Steinberg

General (and former President, Chairman, Prime Minister, etc.) Ne Win is close to earning his karmic reward. He has been the most important personage in the history of modern Myanmar. Since Burma’s independence in 1948, he has held every high administrative and party office, and since his final retirement as Chairman from the Burma Socialist Program Party in July 1988, he has been, according to conflicting reports, retired but also perhaps the eminence grise behind the military junta that came to power that year. In October, Ne Win survived heart surgery in Singapore and returned to Rangoon.

If Ne Win has been the most influential individual in the years of modern Burmese independence, the enormous influence that he has exerted has more often than not been detrimental to the well being of the Burmese population. He has led two coups, installed a particularly virulent form of socialism on the poverty stricken state. He later moderated his stance, but at the same time developed an autocratic system of governance and a type of personalistic rule that became anathema to those seeking modernisation, pluralism, a government responsible to its people, or social betterment. He led a Burma army that has created for itself a myth of its efficacy, and General Ne Win’s as its leader.

General Ne Win, as all monarchs and leaders of the Burmese state have done, has built a Buddhist pagoda to ensure that his future incarnations will be better than the present. He surrounded himself in this lifetime with a clique of individuals who rose from their association with him when he commanded the Fourth Burma Rifles before independence to the highest positions in the government. His was the ultimate Burmese entourage.

As he leaves the scene, and even if he lingers a while, his influence is over, but his legacy lives, not only in the dire state of the society that he and his colleagues left behind, but also because he has been part of the cohesive forces that have kept the rivalries within the military from publicly erupting. How strong this personal ‘glue’ has been is the issue.

The military claims unanimity on policy issues, but the assumptions of many are that the overt splits have been avoided simply because of the fear of military splintering, losing the perquisites of office, retribution should they lose power, and although this is controversial, over the fear of Ne Win’s mercurial wrath. With him gone, there may be important changes.

At the same time, the secretive dialogue between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi continues, but to what end? Leaked accounts of some of the talks and conditions have emerged, but whether real or planted is unclear. But unless there are significant changes within a few months, the pessimism surrounding Myanmar’s political stasis is likely to return. The UN special envoy, Razali Ismail, will return to Yangon toward the end of this year to try to prod both sides toward movement. But stasis may no longer continue, even if progress may be elusive. Ne Win’s death could push some sort of political accommodation, or prompt military factionalism, or both.

WATCHPOINT: Whatever happens, and no matter who governs, it is probable that the military will retain essential power over the unity of the country, much of the economy, and their own affairs.

 

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