The Dictator's Grandson
The Dictator's Grandson
“I knew they would never hang us”
By Hans Hulst
A grandson of former dictator Ne Win shares his childhood memories of the 1988 uprising, talks about his years in prison and expresses his doubts about democracy. “Even Hitler was democratically chosen.”
In the life of U Aye Ne Win nothing is normal. Born in 1976 into the most powerful family in the country, that of omnipotent ruler Ne Win, the dictator’s grandson sat front row during key events in Myanmar’s history. Later the family name became a burden that landed him a lengthy prison sentence over an alleged coup plot. Now a well-groomed dandy with a slightly chubby build, U Aye Ne Win sat down for the interview at a cousin’s house in Yangon. The Ne Win family’s lakeside residence is off limits to journalists and photographers (See: Portraying Myanmar’s elite).
During his school years, U Aye Ne Win soon realised he was different than other kids. “When I was eight years old one of my friends told me my lunchbox was stolen,” U Aye Ne Win remembers. “When I checked the kids had returned the box. My food was still in it. It turned out they had wanted to take a look at what I ate. They were disappointed to find out that I ate the same food as everybody else.”
“We didn’t feel threatened at all during the Summer of Protest.
We went about our usual routine.”
When he was 12, Myanmar, then still called Burma, faced turbulent times. Millions joined protests against the junta that culminated in a national uprising on August 8, 1988. On that historical date protests and strikes paralysed the country. The army reacted with force. About 3,000 demonstrators were killed in a bloody crackdown. “When the army shoots, it shoots to kill,” Ne Win had famously warned. For U Aye Ne Win the protests didn’t signify anything special. He mostly stayed in. “I and my family never felt we were in danger. There were demonstrations, yes, but we didn’t feel threatened at all. We went about our usual routine.”
One of the main catalysts for the uprising was the economic hardship wrought by a failed 25-year experiment with a socialist economy. In 1987 Myanmar, once known as the rice bowl of Asia (See: Rice Bowl of Asia), even had to apply for Least Developed Country status which allowed the government to borrow money at more favourable terms. U Aye Ne Win acknowledges that Myanmar was dirt poor, but he feels his grandfather was not to blame. “Myanmar has rich natural resources, but this wealth has been wasted on fighting instead on development. The main root of our country’s problems is the armed conflict. Myanmar saw the longest civil war in the twentieth century.” He points at what prominent democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi recently said about the conflict in Kachin State: ‘Everytime you launch a mortar, thousands of dollars are burned.’ U Aye Ne Win: “That was a poignant remark.”
Family in decline
On September 18, 1988, a new generation of military officers seized power in a coup that brought the slow retreat of the Ne Win family from the corridors of power. After Ne Win stepped down from the Presidency in 1981 he stopped going to his office. Senior government officials still visited the dictator regularly to seek what they considered to be essential guidance from the ‘old man’. When Ne Win also relinquished the chairmanship of the Burma Socialist Programme Party in July 1988 these visits stopped altogether.
But the family continued to have significant political influence. That is why the government tried to tarnish his reputation and that of his brothers, U Aye Ne Win claims. In 1989 a state-run newspaper printed the sensational rumour that U Aye Ne Win and his brothers had murdered the teenage son of a well-known pop singer. “Little did they know that this boy went on to become the hip-hop star J-Me,” said U Aye Ne Win, laughing. “He never actually died. Every time he performed on stage was a living mockery of the government propaganda.”
An incident in 1999 created further unease in the government. U Aye Ne Win met Michael Aris, the husband of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in the months before the British academic’s death. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to meet Ne Win, as she felt it was the only way to bring about a solution for the political stalemate. U Aye Ne Win was asked to act as postiljon d’amour (love messenger).
“We needed government approval, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest,” said U Aye Ne Win. “The idea scared the government. Our family should stay out of politics and just cut ribbons and kiss babies; that was the message Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt conveyed.” The meeting never took place.
Three years later relations soured even further when U Aye Ne Win, his father and two brothers were arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. U Aye Ne Win was not impressed by the alleged evidence produced in the case. “They showcased 80 walkie-talkie sets, for instance. This was supposedly equipment that we were going to use to stage our coup. Actually, my younger brother was heading a telecommunications company. The Myanmar Police Force couldn’t get hold of walkie-talkies and had asked him to import them.”
11 years in prison
Nonetheless, the judge handed down hefty sentences: U Aye Ne Win was sentenced to death for high treason. He also received a life prison sentence for mutiny. “I knew the death sentence was coming,” he said. “Strangely, I was rather excited about the whole legal process. I knew they would never hang us. There was no President at the time, and by law the signature of the President is needed to hang someone.”
At first U Aye Ne Win and his father and brothers did not want to appeal, as they regarded the case as being so absurd that it didn’t merit a response. Then a message from Senior General Than Shwe made them change their minds. “We were told that if we appealed and the case would go from divisional court to high court and supreme court, that the Senior General would show clemency and pardon us,” U Aye Ne Win said. “So the case went through the whole process, which took two years. And then the Senior General said: ‘It is near the bottom of my priority list.’ There was not going to be a pardon.” The broken promise still angers U Aye Ne Win. “I felt betrayed. I want to put this on the record now, while Senior General Than Shwe and the two witnesses, former Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt and General Maung Aye are still with us.”
What eventually turned out to be a stay of over 11 years in prison, started with a stint in Yangon’s Insein Prison, also known as the ‘darkest hell-hole in Myanmar’. After 1,5 years the family members moved up the comfort chain, to two adjoining wooden bungalows. U Aye Ne Win filled his days jogging and praying. Sometimes he lifted weights he had made from empty plastic oil drums filled with concrete. The three sons and their father were kept incommunicado from the rest of the family while they were in prison.
U Aye Ne Win and his brother, U Kyaw Ne Win, were released under amnesty in November 2013. His father and his other brother, were released the previous year. They regained their freedom in a society in transition. The economy was suddenly attracting foreign investment after international trade sanctions were eased in response to the reform process set in motion by new President Thein Sein. However, the influx of foreign money slowed down in 2013. U Aye Ne Win feels that the slowdown is partly the result of Myanmar being too modest. “We emphasised on what we couldn’t do. Instead we should have promoted our country as a virgin forest where everything is possible.”
Doubts about democracy
From an investor’s point of view democracy is not a crucial condition, thinks Aye Ne Win. “Democracy is nice for public relations, but it’s not necessary for an economy to thrive. It’s a big misunderstanding that changing into a democracy will make Myanmar prosper. In fact, democracy is a costly system to maintain. Stability and business security are paramount.”
Although historians – and many Myanmar – have been critical of Ne Win’s repressive legacy after he seized power in 1962, U Aye Ne Win refuses to condemn his grandfather. He is even unsure if dictatorship is worse than democracy. “Even democracy can’t guarantee that you won’t get a ruler like Adolf Hitler. Hitler was democratically chosen, a majority of the people in Nazi Germany supported him. So, for me, it is hard to say if I prefer democracy or authoritarian rule.”
“It’s a big misunderstanding that democracy will make Burma prosper.
Democracy is a costly system to maintain.”
Regardless of the political system, the Ne Win family continues to prosper. Rumours have it that the family still benefits from the billions of dollars that Ne Win’s grandfather has stashed away in Swiss banks, but U Aye Ne Win denies that. “If we would have stolen or accumulated money, there should be a paper trail, or the documents should have surfaced, for instance at WikiLeaks. However, no country has ever frozen or confiscated assets of our family. That is a clear indication in itself.”
In June 2015 the Ne Win grandchildren said they were taking a majority share in Asia Green Development Bank, which is largely owned by controversial businessman, U Tay Za. Media reports quoted U Aye Ne Win as saying that the China National Corporation for Overseas Economic Corporation was using the Ne Win family company, Omni, to invest US$4.9 billion in the Myanmar economy. Later, AGD Bank executives said that only 15 percent of the shares changed hands. U Aye Ne Win is hesitant to talk about the transaction. “I cannot discuss this issue freely. It is proper for the bank to make its own announcement on that.”
Despite the lost years in prison, the dictator’s grandson is not vindictive. “I think forgiveness is a good thing. I feel the government should announce a general amnesty. The stakeholders who can bring about change should feel confident enough to talk freely and work together, without having to lock their doors at night.”
Portraying Myanmar’s elite
By Jeroen de Bakker
It has not been easy to gain access to Myanmar’s elite. I have spend over two months trying to get in touch with rich kids, successful entrepreneurs and wealthy politicians who were willing to be photographed in their natural habitat. About 15 people initially agreed to meet up, but each one cancelled our appointments soon after. Naively enough, I was disappointed every time.
After many disappointments I started to lose hope in that I could include a story on Myanmar’s upper class in this book. But on my second visit to Myanmar for this project in early 2015, my luck changed. Via a connection of Dutch journalist Hans Hulst, I got in touch with Aye Ne Win who immediately agreed to be photographed without any limits or constraints. His willingness to cooperate felt like hitting the jackpot; Aye Ne Win, 39, is a member of probably the richest family in Myanmar and, as a grandson of the country’s first dictator, had a front row seat in key events of Myanmar’s recent history.
However, Aye Ne Win too, tried to cancel and delay our appointments using a wide range of pretexts, such as ‘Sorry, but I will be meditating the whole week’, or ‘I have an important business meeting’ (never mind his meditation week) and ‘I think it’s fine, but I guess it won’t be interesting for you.’
I was getting more frustrated with the situation but I pushed on and managed to arrange some meetings. They all felt like staged performances though. Always dressed sharp, witnessing him meditating, shopping in a supermarket, going to an art gallery or eating in a restaurant.
A few times he appeared on foot while his enormous car, I discovered later, had been waiting around the corner. When I decided to confront him with his odd behaviour, his answer felt like another excuse. Nevertheless, he opened up more after that discussion. Our conversations became more genuine and he was even willing to show me his enormous car with the badge of his controversial family printed on the side.
In the end it felt as if I had obtained a glimpse into his life – but I’m not sure to what extent my view of his life represents reality. Was I a puppet in Aye Ne Win’s public relation’s offensive or did he really open up to me? I guess the answer lies somewhere in the middle.