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Asiaweek, 27 January 1989

I Saved Burma


On Sept. 18, Burmese armed forces chief Gen. Saw Maung announced that he had taken power from civilian president Maung Maung. That put an abrupt end to months of upheaval in Burma. Huge crowds had filled the streets demanding full democracy. In July, longtime military strongman Ne Win had officially stepped down. On Aug. 8, his short-lived successor, Sein Lwin, had unleashed a bloody crackdown on the demonstrators; 3,000 are said to have died. There was another blood-letting after Saw Maung's military coup. Since then, the general has repeatedly pledged to hold elections once stability is achieved, but has given no date. He stuck to that formula on Jan. 17, when he gave his first interview since his accession. In a defence Ministry ante-room in Rangoon he met with Asiaweek Chief of Correspondents David Ring and Journalist Dominic Faulder. Speaking through an interpreter, occasionally using English for emphasis, he talked with them for three hours. Key excerpts:

The original conditions you set when you came to power were restoration of law & order, peace & tranquility, communications, and material well-being. How far have you gotten ?

There has been progress on all those conditions, but not to a satisfactory level. We are providing the foundation for forming this multi-party democracy. Now if you look at the condition of the parties, they are still in the process of registering. So after you register, you can't go into the elections just like that. You have to organise the people, electioneering, things like that. We have established the General Elections Commission. We have already discussed the first draft of the new election law. There are different stages we need to overcome.

Do you guarantee there will be elections at some stage?

I give you my guarantee.

But no firm date?

No specific date. What we expect is that we will try our best as the situation permits and we will have what we are aiming at before too long.

I'll say one thing: Do you think that I'm assuming power today because I hunger for power? The job that I want most is being commander of the armed forces. These responsibilities are burdens I had to take on because of historical need. In the armed forces we are not backed by a political party.In the next general election, none of us is going to stand for election.

What do you believe led the Burmese people to revolt, from March through September?

It actually began with a quarrel between some students and some local people. The authorities in power at that time had the responsibility to resolve the situation. In this effort two students died and the blame was put on the government. That was the beginning, the spark. Afterwards, we had disturbances in Rangoon. At that time 41 people died. But the previous government did not announce this in time, so the people became very anxious. All sorts of rumours floated around. From that moment the demonstrations grew larger and larger and larger.

Outsiders were amazed by the ferocity of the response. Why was the force so great ?

We have to look at this in the constitutional context. In our country we have the People's Police Force, who are primarily in charge of maintaining law and order. We had the anti-riot squads: very small in number, about two companies. Of course, we had to to help them. They could not control the situation. It is stipulated in the Constitution that if the disturbances get to that stage then state power will have to be handed over to the armed forces.

We tried our best to be very controlled. On the one hand, we had martial law. On the other hand, the order given to us was: there mus be no bloodshed. We looked at the situation objectively. On the 8th of August, we waited until 8 o'clock, 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock at night. That was the time when the rioters [indicated that no matter what] we are going to have this uprising. At twelve after ten, we fired into the crowd four rubber bullets. Four, that's all. There were six people who were hurt. Six people. So we controlled the situation in this manner. But on the following day, on the 9th, the mob came to assault us. In defence, we fired. But we did it in a controlled manner, not in an irresponsible manner. Instead of using our army weapons, we used shotguns --twelve-guage.

So the question can be asked: why did we have to use the twelve-guage guns in this manner, why not use tear gas? We didn't have it. In martial law, we have military administration -- the only thing left is to shoot with the arms that you have. So we had some firing on the 8th, 9th and 10th. And on the 11th, the order came again: don't shoot. The on the 14th, the order was given to lift martial law. But the mobs did not use peaceful means. The situation became worse. And then we had changes in presidents and thing like that. It was a very, very complex situation.

Now what I would like to say is that after the election, when the new government comes into power, I will submit my report without reservation for the actions that I have taken. The happenings that occurred during my administration, whether they were good, whether they were bad, I assume responsibility.

It is said that you, Sein Lwin and Maung Maung are all part of the same clique. Are you Ne Win's appointee, Ne Win's man?

Looking at it from the outside, from the majority view, it is something that gives reason for anxiety and suspicion -- I'll be quite frank with you. But we have a tradition in the armed forces. The father of the armed forces is Gen. Aung San [assassinated in 1947]. The person who developed the armed forces to maturity is Gen. Ne Win. The person who has tought me from the time I was an ordinary private is Gen. Ne Win. Gen. San Yu [president until July] was also chief of staff. Sein Lwin was my commander. So sometimes, since they have tought us so much, my thoughts perhaps might coincide with what they have thought previously. naturally people accuse me of acting on their behalf. But in reality these people -- U Ne Win, San Yu, U Sein Lwin -- are completely retired. They're really retired.

But is Ne Win still in power behind the scenes ?

It's most difficult for us to explain these rumours and allegations .. When people see me visit Ne Win, they think I'm going for instruction or advice. But he's like a parent to me.

Did Ne Win know about the coup beforehand ? Did you go to inform him that it would take place ?

No. Definitely I did not.

How was that decision taken?

We consulted amongst ourselves. This was a situation where we had to take power because the situation had worsened very much. Because if we waited for two more days, we would be in big trouble. [The opposition] had worked out who would take which portfolio or responsibility.

Do you think excessive force was used in September ?

No. After we assumed power on the 18th, if we had used the arms that we had, I can assure you the casualties would be tremendous. In actuality, in the demonstrations the number of people who died was fifteen --(in English) one-five. There were over 500 other deaths that occurred during the lootings and the destruction of factories and workshops.

You are satisfied the army acted professionally and with discipline ? There was no breakdown ?

I believe that I saved the country from an abyss. The country has come back from an abyss, and I saved the country, for the good of the people, according to law.

What can you say to investors worried about political stability and elections ?

We have an open-door policy in the economic sphere. If they want to come in, that's fine. If they don't well .. We don't expect that during our administration we will have this investment. I can understand this because an investor cannot just come in with money and invest it. You have to take time and do feasibility studies. There is room to believe that during the period of these studies, the multi-party general elections will be held.

The Japanese recently cut off aid. The U.S. and West Germany have also done so. What is your reaction ?

It's a question for them -- what can we do ? It's no problem. We have timber and other natural resources that we can exploit and sell to fulfill the basic needs of the country. In the case of the Japanese, some [money] will be in investment, of course. So if they don't give, of course we won't have this investment program. But one thing is certain: we are not going to starve because of that.

Many Burmese expatriates have valuable skills. Are they welcome to return ?

They are welcome to return on a visit now and again. There are some who committed crimes and ran away. I can't accept those .. If they don't come, there's an adequate supply of intellectuals who can come here. You are right: we need their expertise. But for oil exploration, we can hire experts.In the case of joint ventures we could call technicians. Even foreigners can come and stay for a long time if they're going to engage in joint ventures -- (in English) just as expats.

There's uncertainly about students returning from border areas. Can you assure us that they are not being maltreated ?

This is something that cannot be hidden. We are doing thing openly. It's very difficult to convince people who refuse to believe. What can I say ? We have a teaching from the Buddha -- "Welcome to see for yourself and to see the truth." Previously, we did not have so much contact with correspondents. To be perfectly frank with you, we were very, very lacking in public relations in the previous government. We've opened up. You are the first journalist to see me.

Are you looking for guarantees that no action would be taken against you or other military officers by a future government ?

Burmese don't do this. The way that (Korea's) Chun Doo Hwan is having difficulties, that's irrelevant. We have a clear conscience with regard to our personal discipline and behaviour, with regard to financial matters. Where do you think I'm getting my salary now ? I don't take the salary of the president, the prime minister, the defence minister, or the foreign minister [all his responsibilities]. Only as supreme commander.

What will you do after the elections ?

I'll retire (laughs). those who are still young enough will carry on.


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