Obituary: General Saw Maung

Ned Wheeler
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:43

Senior General Saw Maung was the former head of the military junta that seized power in Burma in 1988.

Nineteen eighty-eight was a year when People's Power became a reality, first in the Philippines, then Burma, then much of Eastern Europe. Massive demonstrations by unarmed civilians caused governments to crumble, and brought the hope of freedom and democracy. Burma - like China nine months later - went against the trend, trucking in troops from the front line to put down the protests and establish ruthless control.

General Saw Maung, as Burmese Commander-in-Chief of the time, was the head of the new junta that took over, the SLORC, or State Law and Order Restoration Council. He was to claim that only 500-odd people were killed in the take-over - but human rights organisations put the total at twice that.

Between his takeover on 18 September 1988 and his replacement in 1992, his government gained pariah status in the world. Schools and universities were closed down; freedoms of speech and assembly were denied; hundreds of democracy workers were arrested - including the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; torture by Military Intelligence was rife; 200,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh, and many thousands of Burman as well as ethnic minority refugees fled into Thailand.

The first moves of his successor, General Than Shwe, in April 1992, seemed to highlight his own failures - for Than Shwe promised to accept back Rohingyas, to open talks with insurgent groups, and to release many political prisoners.

In comparison with his failings, Saw Maung's positive achievements seem small - making a series of steps to open up the Burmese economy; inviting in the foreign press to a much greater extent than had happened before; and holding a free election in 1990 - though this achievement was more than wiped out by his refusal to give power to the winning party.

Saw Maung was born in Mandalay in 1928. After secondary school education only, he joined the army in 1949. Rising through the ranks, he became Commander of the 99th Light Infantry Division in 1975, and in 1978, Brigadier General of Burma's South Western Command. He moved up to Vice Chief of Staff in 1983, and Chief of Staff in 1985. He was subsequently Defence Minister; and following the SLORC takeover he combined the posts of Chairman, Chief of Staff, Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Foreign Minister.

Saw Maung appears to have owed his success directly to General Ne Win, who ruled Burma for 26 years up to 1988. He certainly met Ne Win at an early stage in his career, and later said Ne Win was "like a parent" to him. As a leader, Ne Win was obsessed with eliminating potential rivals to himself, and made promotions on the basis of personal loyalty rather than talent. There was a story going around that, when Saw Maung was young, Ne Win caught him showing cowardice in the face of the enemy - and after that, always felt safe in promoting him, in the knowledge that he could be disgraced at any time.

The two most disastrous acts of Saw Maung's term of office, the original takeover and the abortive election, both seem to have been ordered by Ne Win from his retirement - and Saw Maung simply complied. In Saw Maung's many long and rambling speeches, faithfully transcribed in the national newspaper, he comes across as bumbling rather than wicked. He held forth at great length on the subjects of Buddhism and democracy, on which he regarded himself as an expert. "I am a person who never lies," he once declared.

He saw the SLORC's rule as only temporary, designed to restore law and order to the point where the army's authority was no longer questioned - and then hand over power to an incoming government, submitting as he did so a full report on his own stewardship. He said he knew nothing of politics - which seemed true enough - and he worked 16 hours a day to look after all his portfolios.

Having set up an Election Commission to organise the 1990 election, he promised publicly to hand over to whichever party won it - a promise he was to regret. And he even made some response to accusations of torture as well - reminding the army that it was set up by the Japanese in the Second World War, but saying that Japanese torture methods were no longer appropriate in modern Burma.

There is some confusion as to how his end came about - and whether nervous prostration or the bottle was most to blame. As a lifelong Buddhist, he must have suffered remorse at the way his forces put down widespread protest by senior Buddhist monks in his home town of Mandalay after the election, even though he regarded this as unavoidable. And the award to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 was another bitter blow.

Saw Maung had clung to the belief that his clampdown in 1988 had "saved Burma" from chaos and anarchy - yet here was the proof that the world saw otherwise. In October 1991, the national newspaper carried what was to be his last speech, under the banner headline "Don't let your own integrity be lost, no matter who loses his". After that, he was much in evidence praying and making donations at Buddhist temples, but he performed no more public engagements.

However, the junta kept up the pretence that he was in charge until his "retirement for health reasons" six months later - and he was even confirmed as Prime Minister in March 1992. It is interesting that this fiction is now apparently dropping away; for the SLORC's announcement of his death puts his "retirement" in 1991, not 1992.

Ned Wheeler

Saw Maung, soldier and politician: born Mandalay, Burma 12 May 1928; Chairman, State Law and Order Restoration Council 1988-92; married Daw Aye Yee (one son, two daughters); died Rangoon 24 July 1997.

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