History & Current Events
The Ne Win Years: 1962-1988
General Ne Win (GlobalSecurity.org)
_ Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948. Independence was followed by a period during which Burma was a democratic republic with multi-party elections, but which was generally characterised by political instability and bitter fighting between parties. In 1958, the Army Chief of Staff, Ne Win, was charged with setting up a caretaker government to restore order, which arrested and deported many ‘communist sympathisers’ and allowed a new general election to take place in 1960. However, this stability only lasted until 2 March 1962, when Ne Win staged a coup d’état and became head of state as Chairman of the Revolutionary Council, and also Prime Minister. Declaring that "parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Burma," the new regime suspended the constitution and dissolved the legislature. This marked the beginning of the overwhelming dominance of the army in nearly all areas of the country, which continues to this day. The policies pursued by Ne Win would also lead to Burma become one of the poorest countries in the world.
The Burmese Way to Socialism
General Ne Win oversaw several reforms after taking power, and during the period of 1962 to 1974 almost all aspects of society were nationalised or brought under government control. His administration instituted a system that included elements of extreme nationalism, Marxism, and Buddhism, though Ne Win did not have much interest in either ideology or religion. This new system, called the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’, combined Soviet-style nationalisation and central planning with the governmental implementation of superstitious beliefs. Ne Win also founded the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), and held the position of chairman for 26 years, from 4 July 1962 until 23 July 1988.
During the years of the Burmese Way to Socialism, private hospitals were brought under public ownership and a system of state hospitals and institutions was established in Burma. A new system of public education was introduced and a campaign to eradicate illiteracy was launched in 1965. Between 1962 and 1965, important laws, aimed against landlords, were adopted with the purpose of protecting peasants’ rights to land and property and of renting land.
On 2 March 1974, 12 years after his coup d’état, Ne Win dissolved the Revolutionary Council and proclaimed the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. Shortly after he was elected President, and he appointed Brigadier General Sein Win as Prime Minister. Although Ne Win resigned as President in November 1981, he remained the leader of the BSPP, and thus the ultimate leader of Burma, until his resignation in 1988.
The Ne Win government nationalised the economy and pursued a policy of autarky, which isolated Burma from the rest of the world. The black market and rampant smuggling supplied the needs of the people, while the central government slid slowly into bankruptcy. Furthermore, political oppression caused many educated Burmese to leave the country.
Ne Win also took drastic steps regarding the country’s currency. In 1963 he issued a decree that 50 and 100 kyat notes, the Burmese currency, would no longer be legal, alleging that they were subject to hoarding by operators of the black market and were used to finance various insurgencies. Limited compensation was offered, but many people saw their savings disappear. This also triggered at least once insurgency, that of the Kayan (a sub-group of the Karenni). In September 1987 Ne Win ordered, allegedly on the advice of his astrologer, that the kyat only be available in numbers divisible by 9, his lucky number, leaving only notes such as 45 and 90. Hence many currency notes became worthless, with the result that once again many people lost all their savings overnight.
The effect of all these reforms undertaken by the government was that foreign businessmen and investors were forced to leave, the black market trade grew, Burma was declared a ‘Least Developed Country’ by the UN in 1987, and foreign debt rose to a staggering three quarters of GDP in 1988.
Political opposition and Protests
During the rule of Ne Win there were sporadic protests against the military government, but these were almost always brutally suppressed. On 7 July 1963 the government broke up demonstrations at Rangoon University, killing 15 students. There were also student-led protests in 1965, December 1969, and December 1970. These demonstrations took place mainly on university campuses in the cities of Rangoon, Mandalay, and Moulmein, and were often followed by the closure of universities and colleges to prevent further protests.
In June 1974, workers from more than 100 factories throughout the nation participated in a strike, to which the government reacted by shooting about 100 workers and students on 6 June 1974 at the Thamaing Textile Factory and the Sinmalaik Dock Yard in Rangoon. In December of the same year the military violently cracked down on anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant, the former UN Secretary General. Student protests in 1975, 1976, and 1977 were also quickly suppressed with overwhelming force by the military.
Student protests in March and June 1988 would, in August and September 1988, turn into a nation-wide uprising against BSPP rule, know as the 1988 uprising, that would become the largest uprising in the history of independent Burma, perhaps until the 2007 Saffron Revolution. At the height of the uprising, in July 1988, Ne Win resigned as party chairman. In his farewell speech to the BSPP Party Congress, Ne Win warned that if the ‘disturbances’ continued the "army would have to be called and I would like to declare from here that if the army shoots it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It will shoot straight to kill”. 
The Tatmadaw, the Burmese army, shot, killed and maimed 3,000 or more demonstrators in various places throughout Burma from the period of 8 to 12 August 1988, and again on 18 September 1988, proving that Ne Win's farewell speech was not an empty threat. Many student protesters and other pro-democracy activists fled to the Thai-Burma border, where there is still a large group of activists working to transform Burma into a functioning democracy.
_ Yeni. “Twenty Years of Making Time”, The Irrawaddy, Vol. 16, No. 8, August 2008.