Saw Maung

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Saw Maung

Senior General Saw Maung (born 1928) was the leader of the tatmadaw, the Burmese armed forces, which took power in a military coup on September 18, 1988. The new military regime renamed Burma as Myanmar, its name in the Burmese language.

Saw Maung was born in 1928 in Mandalay, the seat of Burmese culture. He was educated at the Mandalay Central Boys (now National) High School, where he completed Standard 8. He also studied electrical engineering between 1942 and 1948.

In 1949, shortly after independence, he joined the Burmese army as an enlisted man, and soon thereafter was promoted to sergeant. He was commissioned a lieutenant in 1952. From 1962, when the Burmese army under General Ne Win instituted a coup against the civilian government of Prime Minister U Nu, he was assigned to the 29th Regiment, where he remained until 1963. He also chaired the District Security Committee during that period. He joined the Burma Socialist Programme Party in 1964, which he chaired. It was the only legal party in the state and was controlled by the Burmese military.

Saw Maung served with the 5th Regiment from 1965 to 1967, and from 1967 to 1970 was with the 29th and the 47th Regiments. After this period of regimental duty he was rotated through a variety of key regional command posts. From 1970 to 1972 he was attached to the North-West Command, in 1972 becoming deputy commander of the Eastern Command; for the next three years he served as deputy commander of the Northeast Command. He also served as chairman of the Northern Shan State Security Committee in 1972-1973.

In 1975 Saw Maung became deputy commander of the 99th Light Infantry Division, one of the elite strike units of the Burmese armed forces, for a brief period before he became its commander, a post that he held until 1976. Saw Maung became the commander of the Northern Command in 1976 and was Kachin State Security Committee chairman until 1979. At that time, he was promoted to brigadier general and became commander of the Southwest Command in May of that year, as well as Irrawaddy Division Security Committee chairman, a post he held until 1981.

In 1981 Saw Maung was promoted to adjutant general attached to the Ministry of Defense, and in 1983 became army vice chief of staff and the following year deputy minister of defense. In 1985 he was appointed chief of staff of the Defense Services, and in November 1988 he was promoted to general. Following the coup of that year, he was promoted along with the rest of the members of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to the rank of senior general. With General Saw Maung as its chairman, SLORC was formed with 18 officers to restore order in a chaotic situation of nation-wide popular unrest. The SLORC functioned under a martial law regime and promised to turn the government over to civilian elected officials at some point after a new constitution was written and promulgated.

Senior General Saw Maung, who spent all his adult life in the armed forces, was said to be close to General Ne Win, former commander of the Burmese Armed Forces and former chairman of the now defunct Burma Socialist Programme Party, which ran the country until the coup of 1988. In September the armed forces, led by General Saw Maung, seized control of the government. The military moved to suppress the demonstrations, and thousands of unarmed protesters were killed. Martial law was imposed over most of the country, and constitutional government was replaced by SLORC.

The SLORC, soon after the coup, agreed that the state would move from a single-party political system to a multi-party elected government. Under the stringent rules imposed by the martial law regime, 235 separate political parties registered for a national election, and 93 participated in the polling of May 27, 1990. During that time the military declared titular neutrality, but the opposition National League for Democracy swept the election with 392 of the 485 seats, even though its top leadership was either in jail or under house arrest. The voting was generally regarded as fair.

Senior General Saw Maung and his colleagues must determine how and when the SLORC will leave power and the nature of the process to reach that end. He had already reached the normal retirement age for the military by 1990 but agreed to continue in the service for a time.

The Saw Maung regime stirred worldwide condemnation by refusing to recognize the opposition National League for Democracy's victory in the 1990 legislative elections. The league's leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was placed under house arrest, where she remained even after winning the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. As antigovernment protests continued, Saw Maung lost power, resigning as foreign minister in September 1991, as defense minister in March 1992, and as prime minister and council chairman in April 1992. He resigned citing health problems. "Owing to heavy responsibilities undertaken continuously by Senior Gen. Saw Maung, his health failed, necessitating a complete rest as advised by his doctors," the official Yangon Radio said.

Further Reading

Reference works on the period of Saw Maung's participation in Burma's history included David I. Steinberg, The Future of Burma. Crisis and Choice in Myanmar, Asian Agenda Report #14, the University Press of America and the Asia Society (1990); Bertil Lintner, Outrage (Hong Kong: 1989); and Mya Than and Joseph L.H. Tan, editors, Myanmar Dilemmas and Options. See also The Challenge of Economic Transition in the 1990s (Singapore: 1990) and the April 24, 1992 editions of the LA Times and Chicago Tribune.