21 years after the uprising, Burma is still in the hands of the junta. Andrew Loh.

8.8.88 Anniversary: Burma – a bloody history

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the uprising in Burma in 1988. It was led by Burmese students against the military government. 3,000 were massacred by the junta. (For more details, see here.)

Andrew Loh

In 1948, after the Second World War, Burma became a sovereign country when the British relinquished its authority over it.

General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi and affectionately referred to as “Bogyoke” (General) by the Burmese people, is revered as the architect of Burma’s independence from colonial rule. Reflecting the tortured and bloody history of the country, however, General Aung San and six of his ministers were assassinated the year before, in 1947, during a meeting of the Executive Council. A gang of paramilitaries had stormed the building and gunned down the exco members. His political rival, U Saw, was charged for the murders and was subsequently hanged.

Aung San Suu Kyi was then two years old.

In 1962, General Ne Win seized power from Prime Minister U Nu – and Burma has never been the same again.  Ne Win would remain in power for 26 years and ruled as a dictator, until he was replaced by a military government in 1988.

Though he was in retirement, it was believed that he still held substantial influence over the government after the military took over. However, in 2002 Ne Win himself was arrested along with his son-in-law, Aye Zaw Win, who was accused of devising a plot to overthrow the junta. Ne Win was put under house arrest while Zaw Win and his wife, together with Ne Win’s three other grandsons, were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. It is believed that the group is still being held in Burma’s most notorious prison, Insein.

The story of Burma is one of lost potential, a tragedy. A nation deprived of independence in any meaningful sense under the rule of first Ne Win and later the military junta under current chairman, Than Shwe.

The Ne Win way to catastrophy

Ne Win was part of the “Thirty Comrades”,  a group of Burmese led by General Aung San, which fought against the British for independence. The group was trained by the Japanese and was the embryonic nucleus of what would later become the Burma Independence Army (BIA).

Ne Win was tasked with building up resistance forces behind British lines and was said to be effective at this. He was popular with the troops although he was also known for his womanizing. After Burma’s independence, Ne Win became the army chief and directed the Tatmadaw, or military, to pursue ethnic insurgents with relentless purpose. “The more fighting there was, the more the Tatmadaw grew in stature,” according to Justin Wintle, author of “Perfect Hostage”.

Ne Win’s ruthless and barbaric rule not only impoverished the country economically, except for him and his cronies, it also devastated and erased any semblance of democratic freedom for which the founding fathers of Burma fought for.

Ne Win’s “Burmese Way To Socialism”, an ill-thought programme, resulted in Burma’s rapid decline into impoverishment – and into the nightmare of totalitarianism and international isolation.

He suspended the constitution, outlawed all political parties except his own, the Burma Socialist Programme Party, and announced that his personal decrees would have the force of law. Newspapers and tv stations were closed down, except for his own, and the courts were replaced with military tribunals. Buddhist monks had to register with the government and nearly all of Burma’s industries and businesses were nationalized. Private enterprise became virtually non-existent.

The state was empowered to buy rice and agricultural products from farmers – at the government’s own determined prices, which were unsurprisingly always lower than what the market price would be. The state would then export the rice for profit. In the 1950s, Burma was exporting three million tons of rice per year, but by 1988 rice exports had fallen to nearly zero. Timber and precious stones such as sapphires, pearls, rubies and jade, which Burma was rich in, were exported and the profits used to fund the regime and its military machine. In short, Ne Win plundered his own country.

These policies had serious consequences which Ne Win seemed oblivious to, or if he were not, he didn’t care. Educational and healthcare standards collapsed. When harvests failed, malnutrition and famine followed. The exodus of tens of thousands of better-educated Burmese began.

Under British administration and until the early 1960s, Burma was the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia.  Under Ne Win’s rule, however, Burma – with its population of 50 million people – soon became one of the 10 poorest countries in the world.

Plunder and murder

As with all dictators, the fear of losing power soon took hold.

Ne Win pursued insurgents with murderous dedication, targeting students and Burma’s ethnic minority groups in the east of the country who were fighting for autonomy or, like the Karens, for an independent state of their own. Ne Win would have none of this and let loose the Tatmadaw. His soldiers pillaged villages and burned them to the ground. Men and children were massacred and women and young girls as young as 12 were raped or gang-raped by the soldiers – before being butchered to death. Rape is used as a weapon of war to torture and terrorize local ethnic populations into submission. Here is an account from a report:

“Ma Iang was abducted by Burmese soldiers in May 2003 while returning home from a nearby village where she had been helping her sister build her home. The soldiers took the girl and another hostage into the forest where they raped the girl while forcing the man to watch and drink alcohol laced with poison. After villagers from Paletwa New Town realized the two were missing, they reported the disappearance to local army officers, who insisted that they should not search for the victims. When the villagers discovered their bodies, they reported that Iang’s face seemed contorted. Her panties had been stuffed in her mouth, and her skirt covered her face. The boatman appeared to have been poisoned. Iang’s parents tried to file the case with military authorities, but received no response.”

After the villagers have scattered (or have been murdered) and the houses torched and burnt, the Tatmadaw would plant landmines in these areas to prevent villagers from returning. Those who did had their limbs severed when they unknowingly stepped on these explosives. Hard labour in camps awaited those who were “lucky” enough not to be at the receiving end of such barbarism. Thousands were forced to flee into the jungles, many dying from diseases such as malaria and dysentery or starvation. It was reported that most minority children died before reaching the age of five in the unforgiving environment of the jungles. Ethnic minorities such as the Karens became refugees, and hundreds of thousands fled into neighbouring Thailand and Bangladesh, escaping the regime’s ethnic cleansing policy. It is estimated that at least one million people are displaced through forced relocation, abandonment of villages or confiscation of land by the military.

In a 1998 report by the International Labour Organisation, the civilian population too was not spared. The report said:

“There is abundant evidence before the Commission showing the pervasive use of forced labour imposed on the civilian population throughout Myanmar by the authorities and the military for portering, the construction, maintenance and servicing of military camps, other work in support of the military, work on agriculture, logging and other production projects undertaken by the authorities or the military, sometimes for the profit of private individuals, the construction and maintenance of roads, railways and bridges, other infrastructure work and a range of other tasks,…”

Boys were forceably recruited into the Tatmadaw, at times to serve as human landmine detectors as the Tatmadaw carries out offensives against ethnic civilians and insurgents.

To feed his army and his personal greed, the Burmese dictator embraced the narcotics trade and was suspected of collaborating with the Golden Triangle opium warlord Khun Sa, who was also known as the “Prince of Death”. Eventually Burma became the top producer and supplier of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and opium, to the world.

Ne Win’s thirst for blood was matched only by the equally rapacious regime of Pol Pot in neighbouring Cambodia. Torture, in the most inhumane ways, was the order of the day and routine, carried out by Ne Win’s ubiquitous Military Intelligence agents.

As Burma degenerated and living cost spiraled out of control, the citizens protested. Ne Win’s response was to let loose his dogs, the Tatmadaw, to quell any unrests.

Just five months after he came to power, amid protests by students at Rangoon University over severe rice shortages, Ne Win ordered his troops into the university grounds, armed with German-made G3 assault rifles. When night fell, the troops opened fire.  Many were injured. A hundred dead.

The next morning, to show that he meant business, Ne Win had the Tatmadaw lace the Student Union Building with dynamite. Within minutes, the building was no more.


Ne Win’s economic policies were designed to be isolationist and proved to be disastrous. Soon after he took power, the first demonetization exercise was implemented and a second in 1985. It was the third in 1987, however, which led to what is now known as the “8.8.88 uprising” against his regime.

According to a Time magazine report in 2007, Ne Win demonetized the Burmese currency, “wiping out the savings of millions, and introduced new bank notes that were divisible by the number 9 simply because he considered the digit auspicious.” The exercise was believed to have affected 75 per cent of bank notes in circulation then. The result was catastrophic. Overnight, many Burmese found that their life savings were wiped out.

The final straw came when the junta withdrew fuel subsidy and inflation soared, making daily living for the people unbearable.

All around the country, in tea shops, markets and in homes, the feeling of rage and anger was palpable. Students from the universities led public protests against the regime and thousands of ordinary Burmese demonstrated in the streets.

In a statement which shocked many Burmese in July ‘88, amidst the many protests which were taking place all over Burma, Ne Win announced on television that he was stepping down as head of state. The nation was stunned and the people could not believe what they’ve just heard. The rule of the dictator, it seemed, had come to an end. However, the people’s hopes were dashed when Ne Win also announced that General Sein Lwin, who was responsible for previous violent crackdown on protesters, would succeed him.

General Sein Lwin, known as the Butcher of Rangoon, became Burma’s president on July 27. From 8 August to 12 August that year, the Tatmadaw was sent out with a “shoot to kill” directive against the protesters. In the event, an estimated 3,000 people were killed, and thousands more imprisoned, tortured, or executed. Many student leaders were given lengthy jail sentences. After a further crackdown in September, the protests finally subsided.

Although he was no longer head of the regime, Ne Win, nonetheless, is thought to have been the orchestrator of the clampdown. Sein Lwin resigned on August 12 – a mere 16 days after he had succeeded Ne Win. No reasons were given for his resignation. The military took over the reins of government.

While his countrymen struggled to survive under his rule, Ne Win would indulge himself in womanizing, drinking, gambling and playing golf – in England, several times a year. It is believed that he had had five to eight wives and adheres to superstitious beliefs.

He is also believed to be behind the murders in Depayin and at Inya Lake.

In 2002, Ne Win was rumoured to have been admitted to the Singapore General Hospital. His death on 5 December of the same year, at the age of 92, went unannounced by the military government in Rangoon and there was no public funeral.

According to The Irrawaddy,  a website dedicated to reporting events in Burma:

While visiting Singapre in the past, Ne Win often met senior minister Lee Kwan Yew who later wrote in his book: “He (Ne Win) talked about his peace and serenity of mind through his practice of meditation. For two years after he withdrew from the government in 1988, he had been in torment, fretting and worrying about what was going on in the country. Then in 1990 he began to get interested in and practice meditation. He was spending many hours each day in silent meditation. He certainly looked much better than the sickly person I had met in Rangoon in 1986.”

Whether Ne Win had indeed found “his peace and serenity of mind” in his later years or not, he is best remembered by Burmese as a ruthless ruler who murdered his own people and plundered the country.

“I want the entire nation, the people, to know that if the army shoots, it hits – there is no firing into the air to scare.” – General Ne Win, in a tv address to the nation, 1988.


In 2009, a new report by Harvard Law School called for the United Nations to establish a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. The report said:

“But a lesser known story—one just as appalling in terms of human rights—has been occurring in Burma over the past decade and a half: epidemic levels of forced labor in the 1990s, the recruitment of tens of thousands of child soldiers, widespread sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and torture, and more than a million displaced persons. One statistic may stand out above all others, however: the destruction, displacement, or damage of over 3,000 ethnic nationality villages over the past twelve years, many burned to the ground. This is comparable to the number of villages estimated to have been destroyed or damaged in Darfur.” (Read the full Harvard Law School report here)

Nonetheless, the military junta which replaced Ne Win was – and is – no less bloodthirsty under the current leader, General Than Shwe.

Singapore’s Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who visited Burma in June 2009, said:

“I could see that Senior General Than Shwe is in a very difficult position. He has inherited this military regime – Myanmar has been under military government since 1962, so it’s not his creation.”

General Than Shwe, under the Ne Win government, had held many positions in the armed forces and steadily rose to his current position as head of the military junta.

Than Shwe held the following positions in the Burmese Armed Forces during Ne Win’s rule:

–       Lieutenant Colonel in 1972

–       Colonel in 1978

–       Commander of the South West Regional Command in 1983

–       Vice Chief of Staff of the ArmyBrigadier-General and Deputy Minister of Defence in 1985

–       Major-General in 1986

He currently holds the offices of :

–   Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw

–  Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) since 23 April 1992. SPDC is the name of the former State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), established in 1988.

– He is the head of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which has been employed to carry out the orders of the junta.

For SM Goh to say that the military government of Burma is not Than Shwe’s creation may be partly true. However, given Than Shwe’s close association with it at the very highest level, even during Ne Win’s rule, his hands are just as bloody.