April 12, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

The Legacies of Ne Win: Our Common Enemy

14 August 2011: The Union of Burma suffers one of the world’s longest-running civil wars and conflicts in modern history. On August 8, 2011, we once again commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the 1988 people’s uprising in Burma, breaking down the chain of the 27-year reign of General Ne Win, the first dictator in our nation’s history. General Ne Win died, but his notorious legacy lives on. As we ponder our forward strategy against the military rule of totalitarianism, let me step back for a moment to reflect on the vestiges of Ne Win’s notorious legacy leading the Union of Burma into a full-blown theatre of civil war and conflict, as we witness today.

An in-depth investigation reveals the underlying source of the decades-old conflict: Ne Win’s racial chauvinist ideology and his assimilationist policy of Burmanization, which does not embrace unity in ethno-cultural diversity. The result is centralization of decision-making power at the hands of armed forces or “tatmadaw” in Burmese.

Since General Ne Win replaced Lt-General Smith Dun as the tatmadaw commander-in-chief in 1949, senior positions in Burma’s armed forces have been exclusively held only by soldiers of ethnic Burman origin. Systematically, soldiers with a non-Burman ethnic background serving in the tatmadaw have been discriminated and denied high-level positions. Burma’s tatmadaw has now become Ne Win’s tatmadaw. It is not the tatmadaw that the architect of Burma’s independence movement – General Aung San – had founded. What is the difference between the two?

With his theoretical acceptance of the principle of unity in diversity for a multi-ethnic Union of Burma, General Aung San was a visionary leader who attempted to integrate non-Burman ethnic nationalities into the Union by recognizing their inherent rights to self-determination. As John Badgley once put it, General Aung San was “the just man,” the leader who apparently placed national interests before the interests of the Burman majority.”

General Ne Win, on the other hands, is against the concept of giving concession to the political demands of ethnic national minorities, rejecting any form of constitutional arrangement recognizing ethno-cultural diversity of the Union of Burma, including a federal system that combines both elements of self-rule for constituent member states and shared-rule for a common Union.  Consistent with his motto of one blood, one nation, and one voice – and under his policy of Burmanization – he launched his nation-building scheme to create a homogeneous society by institutionalizing a system of one-party rule and a dogmatic “Burmese way to socialism,” thereby denying the inherent and equal rights of self-determination among the ethnic nationalities who co-founded the Union on equal footing.

Erroneously, his wrong equation of federalism with secession culminated in the staging of a military coup in 1962 under the pretext of saving the Union from disintegration. By propagating the fear of Burma’s break-up, Ne Win systematically indoctrinated his armed forces with misleading distortion and dreadful caricature demonizing the underground ethnic armed resistance groups, accusing them of trying to secede from and break up the Union. In characterizing those armed groups, the word ‘tupung’ in Burmese was used, which is equivalent to the modern English word ‘terrorist.’ Alas, with full government control of the media, Ne Win has indeed succeeded in brainwashing the general public and his armed forces, misguiding them into believing that the tupungs are terrorists trying to break up the Union. And only ‘tatmadaw can hold the country together’, which is a bogus claim.

The fact of the matter is that Burma’s armed forces under various rules – from Ne Win to Saw Maung to Than Swe to Thein Sein – are the ones committing vicious atrocities against innocent civilians beyond what one can fathom. They deserve to be called government terrorist groups under brutal regimes that mastermind the killing of thousands of innocents. In reality, the opposition armed groups carrying on the resistance movements against successive military juntas are what one would accurately call ‘freedom fighters and defenders of inalienable human rights, who would die for peace and freedom, racial harmony among different ethnic groups, and a democratic federal system.

Ne Win’s doctrine of Burmanization has contributed to the growing lack of trust between the dominant Burman and non-Burman ethnic groups. Let alone granting the political rights of equality and self-determination, the successive military governments abhor any system that protects and promotes ethno-cultural distantness of non-Burman ethnic nationalities within the Union. Ne Win and his successors’ misplaced attack on diversity has led to forbidding the teaching of ethnic language at school and banning of national day celebrations such as the Chin National Day. With the full militarization of all leadership under tatamadaw, ethnic nationalities are treated as second class citizens.

For ethnic-based armed groups, their armed resistance today is deeper than simply uprooting the totalitarian rule of successive military governments: they are forced to take up arms to defend and claim their inherent rights to equality, self-determination, and freedom within their own territories; freedom from totalitarian rule and ethnic-cleansing.

Instead of trying to find a negotiated settlement to the political strife with leaders of non-Burman ethnic groups through peaceful means, General Ne Win adopted his hostile approach by inventing the infamous four-cut strategy that aims to root out the armed opposition groups. As Martin Smith put it, the ‘Four Cuts’  campaign was designed to cut all links in food, funds, intelligence, and recruits between the insurgent groups and the civilian population.

Unfortunately, the notorious legacy of Ne Win lives on and continues to haunt us. Therefore, while advocating for Burma’s democratization, it is essential that we, both above and underground democratic opposition forces, also concurrently wage an all-out war against the chauvinist ideology of Ne Win and its vestiges of Burmanization under his slogan, “one nation, one blood, one voice.”


By Salai Za Ceu Lian

The author is the Commentary Editor at Chinland Guardian. He holds a Master degree in Political Science from the University of Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at [email protected]

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