- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

BANGKOK The death this month of Gen. Ne Win, Burma's elderly ex-dictator, ended the life of a bizarre, brutal leader who used superstition, military repression and economic mismanagement to turn a prosperous Southeast Asian nation into a pauper and pariah.

"The former military dictator of Burma, Gen. Ne Win, has died while under house arrest, according to reports citing family sources," the British Broadcasting Corp. reported Dec. 5.

"Family members said the 91-year-old died at 0730 local time at a lakeside house he has been held in, along with his daughter, since March 7," the BBC said.

The Associated Press reported that Ne Win's remains were cremated the afternoon of his death in a private ceremony lacking the military honors befitting a general. Only about 25 relatives and friends but no government representatives attended, and Ne Win's passing was ignored in Burma's official media.

Ne Win's health deteriorated over the past few years, culminating in a heart attack in September 2001 and a secretive trip to Singapore for medical treatment.

The late ex-strongman was named Shu Maung "apple of one's eye" when he was born in Paungdale, central Burma, then part of British India, on May 24, 1911. His father was a civil servant.

After seizing power in a bloodless 1962 coup, Gen. Ne Win proudly announced his xenophobic reign as "the Burmese Way to Socialism." He was largely responsible for turning the relatively wealthy, rice-exporting nation nearly the size of Texas into a ruined, repressive land.

Inspired by Marx and Stalin, he kicked out foreign corporations and nationalized their businesses. The hermit-minded leader dreamed up eccentric economic policies based on his superstitious belief in numerology.

In 1987, he canceled the Burmese kyat currency and introduced new notes in denominations based on his personal lucky numbers 15, 45 and 90. Many people were bankrupted overnight when the previous currency was declared invalid.

People were suddenly given new 90-kyat notes, and told they could only make change with new 45-kyat and 15-kyat bills.

"He was said to have bathed in dolphins' blood to regain his youth, and his dedication to numerology was legendary," the BBC reported.

Ne Win set up a powerful, politicized military regime. According to the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and other human rights groups, the Ne Win government tortured prisoners and carried out extrajudicial killings to keep Burma's people in line.

Ne Win was forced aside in 1988 after the military killed thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators during a failed uprising in Rangoon, the capital of Burma, which Ne Win's successors renamed Myanmar.

From 1988 to 2002, the regime allowed the aged ex-despot to dwell in oblivion as a wealthy recluse in Rangoon, where he spent much of his time and fortune building a Buddhist pagoda in hopes of ensuring a happy afterlife.

But last March, his world crumbled. Ne Win's favorite, business-savvy daughter, Sandar Win, and her husband and their three adult sons were arrested by the military junta.

Sandar Win's husband and sons were charged with attempting a coup which surprised diplomats, who suspected the real problem was the family's attempt to profit from its status by ignoring the military's monopolistic commercial regulations.

The Ne Win family was said to have been insulted at not receiving special privileges to continue exploiting Burma's wrecked economy.

As evidence for the coup accusation, the military regime produced weapons, uniforms and other items allegedly amassed by Gen. Ne Win's family. The authorities also said they found "a golden embroidery" illustrated with a crowned peacock, a tiger, a lion, a fish, three swords and a harp.

The "peacock represents Ne Win … the emblem forms part of a royal regalia, and it seems as if they were creating a royal family," reported the government-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

"It seems that if they managed to seize state power, they would establish the monarchy and try to maintain family power for life," the paper added.

The purported evidence for this included three small dolls representing the regime's top leaders Gens. Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt purportedly used in black-magic rituals by the Ne Win family.

In September, a court sentenced to death Ne Win's son-in-law, Aye Zaw Win husband of Sandar Win and the couple's three sons, Aye Ne Win, Kyaw Ne Win, and Zwe Ne Win. The four men have appealed.

Several military officials and other influential people were also imprisoned.

The aged Ne Win and his daughter, Sandar, were put under house arrest, where he remained until he died.

During the trial, many Burmese expressed delight that Ne Win's family was suffering harsh treatment like that he meted out to his countrymen while in power. Some said the trial was reminiscent of one 25 years ago, when Ne Win had the masterminds of a suspected coup plot against him executed.

Today, Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world. The economy is reeling under U.S. and international sanctions put in place to force the regime to allow democracy.

Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in 1990, but the military regime refused to let the elected parliament convene.

Though his life ended in disgrace, Ne Win's 1962-1988 reign formed much of recent Burmese history.

Burma was subjugated by the British in three 19th-century wars and ruled as part of British India until 1937, when it was separated from the latter. In 1941, hoping to break Britain's grip, Ne Win traveled to Japan, trained under the Japanese Imperial Army and helped Japan invade Burma.

After Burma's occupation, Ne Win decided Japan wanted to keep his country, so he plotted against the puppet government and undertook a guerrilla campaign, enabling the British to return in December 1944.

After India and Pakistan attained independence in 1947, Britain granted Burma the same in January 1948.

Ne Win commanded the Burma National Army from 1943 to 1945 and, after World War II, commanded the Burma 4th Rifles, where he established ties with many of his future regime officials.

From 1949 to 1950, he was minister of defense and interior and also commander in chief, a post he held until 1972. In that position, he took over Burma's faltering government as a caretaker leader in 1958-60 and staged a coup in 1962, arresting the former prime minister, U Nu.

Ne Win was rumored to have died in 1997, but showed up in Indonesia alongside President Suharto, who was a close friend.

Upon his death this month, the French newspaper Le Monde summed up the general's legacy by saying Ne Win dominated Burma with an iron hand for more than a quarter-century of unenlightened rule.

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