By AUNG ZAW
Some retired generals and senior officers in Burma have created a storm in Burma’s literary circles by publishing their autobiographies, which are being read with interest inside and outside the country. The books shed light on the inner thoughts of the reclusive military veterans and the famous battles they waged against Burmese communists, the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) and ethnic rebels.
But the authors aren’t telling their readers all. The draconian publishing laws that followed the 1988 uprising affected them, too, and they can be counted among the victims of self-censorship, with only limited freedom to share their stories with the reading public.
Among the autobiographies that have been well received by the Burmese public is a colorful memoir by Lt-Gen Chit Swe, 75.
Chit Swe was head of the bureau of special operations (South) before the 1988 uprising and a member of the State Law and Order Restoration Council that took power in that year. He last served as forestry minister and was removed from that office in 1997.
Other prominent generals who have published memoirs include Maj-Gen Hla Myint Swe, former transport minister, Brig-Gen Than Tin, deputy prime minister, Brig-Gen Ko Ko, Col Tun Tin, former prime minister, Col Nyunt Swe, former deputy foreign minister, and Major P Kyaw Han, former chairman of Pegu Division.
Their books include impressive accounts of battlefield experiences. On the other hand, their understanding of politics, democracy, diplomacy, economics and the ethnic diversity of Burma is limited. Indeed, this limitation no doubt has led the country to its present state. The generals were trained to repel enemies and defend the nation—and not to run a government.
Brig-Gen Than Tin, who led successful “four cuts” operations against communist insurgents in the Pegu Yoma mountains and ethnic insurgencies in the Irrawaddy delta in the late 1960s early 1970s, was a no-nonsense military officer determined to wipe out the insurgents.
In his autobiography, the general, now in his 80s, proudly claims that he defeated the multi-faceted insurgency and asks whether insurgents dare repeat their past mistakes.
Than Tin recalls that before setting out for Pegu Yoma he breakfasted with the War Office commander in chief, Gen San Yu, finding him gentle and modest. This is the impression of San Yu conveyed in other books, too.
Thus it was chilling to hear the general, handpicked by Gen Ne Win, issue a firm order to turn the insurgent-prone Pegu Yoma into a so-called “White Zone,” free of all insurgents. The Burmese army considered Pegu Yoma to be the enemy’s “brain” and the Irrawaddy delta its “stomach.”
In the next few years, Than Tin applied the “four cuts” strategy against villages and communist insurgents. Two hard-core leaders, Thakin Zin and Thakin Chit, were killed and the insurgency was over.
The “four cuts” strategy—involving forced resettlement of entire communities and confinement of villagers in special camps—had been learnt from the British by another author, Col Tun Tin, while studying in London. Tun Tin became prime minister in 1988.
Tun Tin, veteran of many military actions, including the “Battle of Insein,” set up a three-day war game plan attended by senior officers, including Ne Win. The plan demonstrated “four cuts operations” in practice—resettling villagers, cutting supplies, establishing intelligence, recruiting and raising funds.
It is clear from their writings that the veteran military leaders have little regret for their actions, claiming to have brought law, order and peace to Burma in the 1960s and 1970s.
Aside from their fighting skills, they were loyal to their superiors.
Ne Win invited Than Tin to join him on a trip to upper Burma soon after the general’s successful operation in Pegu Yoma, leaving him in the dark about the purpose.
Ne Win met Than Tin at the airport early in the morning and, addressing him as
“Bo Than Tin” (Ne Win liked to call his subordinates “Bo,” meaning lieutenant), said: “We are going to the north and today I will appoint you as deputy minister for mining so you are flying with me (to oversee mining projects).”
With those few words, the reshuffle procedure was over. The battle-hardened commander Than Tin, victor over the communists, never questioned his boss’s decision.
In Chit Swe’s books, Ne Win’s name is carefully replaced by “Lugyi,” meaning a senior person or high-ranking official. The reason for the substitution is that the former forestry minister’s books were published after Ne Win’s family members were arrested in 2001, accused of plotting a coup against top military leaders. Ne Win himself was placed under house arrest and died there—and since then his name is not allowed to be mentioned in any publications.
Chit Swe, who was then deputy commander in the southern region, recalls an eventful trip he made with Ne Win in the mid-1970s to a pearl-producing island.
Ne Win stayed up late into the night, and his physicians became nervous. Their concern was shared by senior officers at the War Office in Rangoon, who repeatedly called Chit Swe and his boss, Col Myo Aung, commander of the Southern Region, to ask whether Ne Win had yet retired to bed.
Ne Win kept all awake by strolling along the beach, followed by dozens of security guards and worried army officers, cracking jokes that nobody shared.
Chit Swe engaged Ne Win in a conversation about a common interest, horse-racing, finally steering him in the direction of the dictator’s sleeping quarters. But Ne Win demanded to sleep at a small jetty.
Chit Swe and a group of soldiers hurriedly prepared a bed and settled the dictator down for the night with some of his guards. Chit Swe later suggested in his book that Ne Win might have been nervous on the island because local security arrangements were in the hands of Col Myo Aung—a younger brother of Ba Thein Tin, chairman of the Communist Party of Burma.
Chit Swe’s books contain many stories of encounters with Thai counterparts, including army chief Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Gen Wimol Wongwanich and some senior officials. He admired Thailand’s growth and reputation and expressed high respect for the Thai king and the queen.
While based in the south, Chit Swe once persuaded his boss, Gen San Yu, during a visit to Kawthaung, to listen to the Thai king’s birthday speech. Perhaps Chit Swe indirectly wanted his boss to learn how to engage in public speaking.
San Yu sat and listened for a while and finally left the room, saying that leaders should occasionally speak to the nation. But he returned to the task of signing official papers—San Yu was indeed one of Ne Win’s yes-men.
In one section of his book, Chit Swe recalls a visit he made to Thailand with Gen Than Shwe, then deputy commander in chief of the armed forces. They received special treatment and found Thai generals eager to please their Burmese guests—because of their interest in the natural resources of Burma, Chit Swe notes.
As Chit Swe and Than Shwe were greeted by Thai officers, young female parachutists landed in front of them and presented them with garlands and flowers. Not surprisingly, all the young women were beautiful, Chit Swe notes.
Chit Swe was eager to repair relations with the US, and he led a semi-official delegation on a visit there in 1994. Speaking to this correspondent, he often mentioned the US election, US president Obama, Bush’s policy on Burma, sanctions and the current economic crisis.
During his US visit, Chit Swe met Senators John McCain, Richard Shelby, Jesse Helms, as well as officials and American scholars. Whenever human rights and democracy issues were raised, Chit Swe and his delegation defended the regime.
Chit Swe and other generals and senior military men who have written autobiographies have all been careful when writing about the 1988 uprising, often toeing the official line and expressing the need for the spirit of union and for the armed forces to maintain law and order. As long as the army is united, the country will never disintegrate, Chit Swe asserts.
But Chit Swe was one of the moderate soldiers. He admitted the failure of the “Burmese Way to Socialism” in 1988. At one point during the uprising, he was assigned to calm air force officers who were joining the demonstrators. He was ridiculed by the rebellious officers, but his calm approach pacified them.
Chit Swe says in his book that the armed forces had no intention to hold onto power for long. But it has now been 20 years, and Chit Swe has had little influence in telling his boss Than Shwe how to steer the country.
Likewise, Tun Tin, who briefly became prime minister in 1988, says in his book that he and his cabinet were preparing to reform the country’s economy and create an open market, but it was too late.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Tun Tin often flew to the German Federal Republic and Japan to get soft loans and assistance, knowing that his country’s economy was falling apart. But during that time, none of these battle-hardened soldiers took a bold step, and it seems now that they look back with some regret and sadness.
In any case, all their books are colorful and interesting to read. They illustrate the psyche of tough soldiers and generals who blindly loved their country and jealously controlled their power in the past—as well as their thirst for golf and whisky.
All in all, the books written by generals and senior army officers demonstrate that patriotism was the main reason they entered the armed forces, believing they were saving the country from insurgency and external threat.
There’s no doubt that the armed forces command their absolute love and faith. They want to see the country prosper in peace, but they don’t have the wisdom to cure its ills.
To be fair, the books show that their authors are human beings—but it must be said that they share responsibility for much human suffering in Burma.
They are now retired and in their old age, happy to talk about most topics apart from current politics. They realize that all is not well in Burma but they can’t speak out—they are also prisoners in their own country.