(1911–2002) Burmese ruler
U Ne Win was one of the central figures in 20th-century Burmese history and bears a heavy responsibility for creating one of the most vicious, despotic regimes of the modern world.
Ne Win was born into a middle-class family in Burma as it was becoming more firmly integrated into the British Empire. His original name was Shu Maung, and he studied at University College, Rangoon. When Japanese troops invaded Burma in World War II, he was one of many Burmese who welcomed their defeat of the British. He became one of the “30 Comrades” who received secret military training from the Japanese and subsequently led the Burma Independence Army (BIA) into Rangoon. By this time, he had changed his name to Ne Win, or Brilliant Sun. However, he subsequently became disillusioned with Japanese rule and, together with Aung San, nationalist leader of the Burmese, he switched the allegiance of the BIA to the Allied forces. When Burma won independence in 1948, he was appointed to command the military forces of the country and played an important role in dealing with the conflict between the central government and ethnic minority groups.
U Nu was ruling the country during the early postindependence years as head of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), which had been created by Aung San. However, the gradual breakdown of unity within the AFPFL led U Nu to invite Ne Win and his Burmese Socialist Party to form a caretaker government. Ne Win yielded power at the 1960 general election but then seized power in 1962 on the grounds that the policies of U Nu’s new government had led to a renewal of fighting and religious conflict.
As ruler, Ne Win announced the Burmese Way of Socialism, which combined elements of socialism, antiimperialism, and forced puritanism. The results were increasingly disastrous for Burma’s economy and society. Despite progressive strengthening of control over power, intensive censorship, isolationism, and mass arrests, his government was never fully able to suppress the opposition. The international community was critical of his rule, but he was able to gain support from China to maintain his rule. As time went on his personal idiosyncrasies became more prominent, which included increasing reliance on mysticism and superstition. One bizarre move was his insisting that all currency be issued in denominations divisible by nine or in other numbers he considered to be auspicious.
In 1987 rioting intensified across the country and led to Ne Win’s resignation the following year. Power passed to the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC), which renamed the country Myanmar. Ne Win maintained some behind-the-scenes role in the government.