OBITUARY : U San Yu

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U San Yu was President of Burma from 1981 until 1988. His career as a soldier and then as a politician under the military- socialist system depended throughout on the patronage of General Ne Win, the ruler of Burma from 1962 onwards, when Ne Win seized power in a military coup.

San Yu's unquestioning loyalty to Ne Win was regarded as the main reason for his rapid rise to the top in the army, and then in the one-party system which Ne Win put in place to run the country for more than a quarter of a century. He was the only one of Ne Win's close associates who over the years did not get sacked, imprisoned or exiled as an ambassador for doing dangerously well in the old man's eyes.

San Yu was born in 1919 near Prome, the district where Ne Win was also born. Educated at Rangoon University before the Second World War, when its standards were high, and, according to one source, briefly at an American military college, San Yu was commissioned in the Burma Independence Army in 1942 and fought with it first alongside the Japanese and then, when the tide turned, briefly alongside the Allies. He was Military Secretary to Ne Win from 1956 to 1959, and then went to be military commander of the North and North West military areas, where a variety of insurgents - Nagas, Kachins and assorted Communist groups - were active.

After the 1962 coup which put the army formally in power, San Yu became a member of the ruling Revolutionary Council, and the following year combined the jobs of Deputy Chief of the General Staff and Minister of Finance and Revenue. He became General Secretary of the Central Organising Committee of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party when it was created to take over from the Revolutionary Council in 1965, and kept this job until 1978. From 1969 to 1972 he was Minister of National Planning, Finance and Revenue, as the economy slid downhill under the xenophobic single- party system.

He became Deputy Prime Minister in 1971 and added the defence portfolio and the office of Chief of the Armed Forces (arguably more important) the following year. From 1974 to 1981 he was Secretary of the Council of State, a less important role. When Ne Win stood down in 1981, San Yu was made President of Burma, and from 1985 Vice-Chairman of the Party, until he relinquished both in July 1988 along with Ne Win himself, who formally stood down from his last (and most important) formal position as Chairman of the single party. San Yu then disappeared from the official scene. He had suffered from heart trouble from 1983, when he had a major operation in Houston, Texas.

The secrecy which surrounded the character and private lives of Burma's senior military elite was more than usually marked in the case of U San Yu, partly because he never fell seriously out of General Ne Win's favour. But such evidence as emerged suggested that he was efficient, colourless and more modest than most of his peers. No one had any illusion that as President he exercised supreme power, which remained in Ne Win's hands even after he relinquished that office. In September 1987, for example, when all currency notes above the value of one pound were rendered valueless on the stroke of 11 one morning, no one had any doubt who was responsible, and San Yu's own family was rumoured to have lost a fortune.

As President, San Yu had some formal contact with foreigners, and appeared benign and alert when greeting arriving and departing ambassadors and official guests. When the Princess Royal visited Burma in 1987, he warmly congratulated her on her work for children world-wide, with every impression of sincerity, even while Burma refused to allow the Save the Children Fund or any other charity to operate in the country.

Martin Morland

U San Yu, army officer and politician: born Prome, Burma 1919; President of Burma 1981-88; married (four children); died Rangoon 28 January 1996.

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