Ne Win’s coup d’etat on March 2, 1962

General Ne Win
General Ne Win

It is claimed that the Commander-in-Chief of the Burma Army, General Ne Win, launched a 'bloodless' coup when he seized power on 2 March 1962. During the coup, Burma Army troops surrounded the Rangoon home of Sao Shwe Thaike, first President of the Union of Burma (1948-52), former Speaker of the Chamber of Nationalities of the Union Parliament (1952-1960), last hereditary ruler of Yawnghwe (1936-62), and alleged leader of the 'Federal Movement' to amend the Union Constitution, in order to take him into 'protective custody'.

It is also claimed that Burma Army troops had to open fire in self-defense when the guards in Sao Shwe Thaike's home fired on them. The return fire accidentally killed his son. Given the known self-serving propaganda of the Burmese military, I had always assumed that no one would ever believe the official account. It is much like the claim by the military that they fired only 16 shots (as reported in The Shan of Burma) on 7 July 1962 on the campus of Rangoon University to disperse demonstrating students. Eye witnesses including my older brother Chao Tzang reported more casualties. It is now accepted that over a hundred were killed that day. Generally, I have only spoken of what happened at our house on March 2, 1962, when asked. I would clarify that we had no guns in the house and that we could not have fired on the soldiers first even had we wanted to. In fact, we were awakened by the first gun shots.

I am now writing this account to set the record straight because a noted Shan historian, Sai Aung Tun, has given the following account in his book, The History of the Shan State: From its Origins to 1962, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2009-pp. 484-485. Please note that the quote below is not an attempt to discredit Sai Aung Tun or his scholarly work on the Shan. In his book, he quoted official accounts of what happened on the night of 2 March 1962 at the Yawnghwe family residence. Unfortunately, the official accounts he relied on are inaccurate regarding this event:

But when army units arrived at the residence of the Saohpa of Yawng Hwe, Sao Shwe Thaike, at the corner of Kokine and Goodliffe Roads in Yangon, they met with gunfire. Upon their arrival the troops shouted out in the Shan language to the security guards not to resist. But as guards opened fire, the troops returned fire, and Sao Shwe Thaike's seventeen-year-old son, Sao Myee Myee Thaike, died from bullet wounds in the head and leg. There were no other casualties. Concerning Sao Myee Myee's death, his elder brother Sao Tzang (Eugene Thaike) went to report to the Yankin police station that at about 2 am on March 2, 1962, that unknown men in uniform had entered their house and opened fire, killing Sao Myee Myee Thaike alias Sao Hom Hpa (sic). The Yankin police station opened a murder case under section 302 of the Penal Code.

My brother, Chao Tzang Yawnghwe (aka Sao Tzang; Eugene Thaike) in The Shan of Burma: Memoirs of a Shan Exile (2010:9) stated:

I was rudely awakened at about 4 am on the morning of 2 March 1962, by sounds of gunfire, faintly at first but growing louder as I grew more awake. The gunfire was directly outside the home, and bullets smashed through window panes and frames, thudded against or ricocheted off walls. A military unit had crept up to our home in the dark, surrounding it on two sides, had opened fire. My younger brother, Chao Mee who was only seventeen years old was killed "while resisting the armed forces in its performance of duty", according to the authorities concerned.

Patricia Elliot in writing about my mother, Sao Hearn Hkam, the last Mahadevi of Yawnghwe, The White Umbrella: A Women's Struggle for Freedom in Burma writes (305):

At 2:00 AM Tzang marked his last exam paper for the night. Exhausted, he threw himself on his bed. Within moments, he was in deep sleep. It was still dark when Tzang awoke. He looked at his clock: 4:00 am. Something had wakened him. Then he heard it again, in the distance. Gunfire. There was no mistaking the sound. He lay listening, eyes still closed, unable to put his tired mind in gear. The sound drifted in and out. Then two short, sharp cracks jolted him to consciousness. What was happening? He heard voices in the garden, feet running, someone shouting in Burmese. Heart pounding, Tzang bounded to his feet and ran out into the hallway. The rest of the family was already awake and gathered in the large entrance hall. They looked at each other in confusion but there was no time to talk. The men outside opened fire… … When the shooting stopped, they heard heavy boots outside the door.

Prince Shwe Thaike stepped out from behind the books. Tzang followed his father outside under the portico, where the air smelled of cordite. From the darkness, two men dressed in Burma Army uniforms stepped forward and leveled their bayonets at the prince. Then they marched him across the garden, Tzang hurrying behind them… …Next, the soldiers searched the house. Tzang led them from room to room. All they found was a pistol in a fancy case, a gift to his father when he was president. It had never been used. Outside, a gray dawn streaked the sky. As the soldiers made their exit, Tzang saw a figure lying in the grass beside the portico. It was his younger brother Myee, face down with a Naga lance in one outstretched hand. The family kept the lance, another souvenir gift, in the main hall for decoration; Myee must have grabbed it for protection before going outside to investigate the first furtive noises. Tzang leaned over the boy. He saw a small rifle wound in his ankle. It was just a tiny hole, but there was blood everywhere and Myee wasn't moving. Then Tzang saw the large execution-style bullet wound in the back of Myee's head. His little brother was dead.

Although the above is a third-person narrated account based on interviews of what happened on the night of 2 March 1962, the essential facts are correct. We had no arms in our house and we did not open fire on the Burma Army troops surrounding our house.

 In a letter to the Editor of the New York Times published on 13 August 1988, my sister, Sao Ying Sita, Princess of Yawnghwe, wrote:

Ne Win's coup in Burma 26 years ago was not "bloodless," as stated in your news accounts of July 24 following his departure from power. My 16-year-old-brother, Prince Myee was killed on the day of the coup, March 2, 1962, when Mr Ne Win's elite troops riddled him with bullets. I saw his body afterward. My brother was unarmed and in his pyjamas. He had been awakened by noise (of the troops) outside our Rangoon mansion, and he went out to investigate. Afterwards, Burmese soldiers who mowed him down were overheard saying gleefully, "It felt very good to shoot."

Armoured cars and heavily armed units had opened fire in dead of night on a defenceless house (and its sleeping inhabitants, myself included) in the heart of the capital city. Ostensibly their mission was simply to arrest my father… For some reason we, as a family, have never collectively discussed our personal experiences of that night. Maybe the grown-ups did, but I was never part of such a discussion. My mother was receiving medical care in England at that time. My oldest brother, Chao Hso (Tiger Yawnghwe), was studying in the UK. Chao Tzang, who was there, died of a brain tumour on 24 July 2004 in Vancouver. My oldest half-sister, Sao Sanda, author of the Moon Princess, was in Laos with her husband, Peter Simms, at the time. And given that my two sisters, a half-sister, and an adopted sister who were all there in Rangoon on the night of 2 March 1962, have not spoken about their experience (other than the letter in the New York Times by Sao Ying Sita in 1988), I feel an obligation to recount my experience for future generations. •••

[The following is an account Harn wrote in 1989 about that night:]

Myee and I were fooling around with our father's two new automatic pistols, when one of them accidentally fell to the floor. The impact set the firing mechanism off and the pistol started firing wildly in all directions. I screamed, "Myee, get down. You will get hit!" and woke from my dream into a real life nightmare. Bullets were flying everywhere. The deafening noise of automatic weapons being fired at close range had awakened me. Through the windows, I could see the bullets streaking up and lighting the night sky. Instinctively, I dove off my bed and crawled to Myee's. But his bed was empty. Realizing that I was alone in the room, I crawled behind the headboard of the bed to at least put something between me and the bullets ricocheting off the walls. Although I was just about to turn fourteen, I was familiar with guns. But being helpless at the receiving end of a machine gun was something I had never contemplated. I found myself trembling uncontrollably. I was not afraid. I was angry and wanted to fight back but I could not stop myself shaking.

"Myee, Myee, are you there? They are shooting at us." It was one of my sisters - perhaps Ying or Htila, calling softly but urgently from outside our bedroom door. I quickly crawled out into the huge upstairs hall in the middle of the house. Most of the household were already there taking cover. But no one knew what was going on and where Myee was. I then found out that my father had gone downstairs and we settled down to wait for his return. Little did I know then that I would never see him again - alive. I was indignant that the robbers were so bold as to be attacking us in the middle of the capital, Rangoon. "Where are the police?" was my first question. It did not make sense. As the firing continued, I could hear the noise of engines and some traffic on the road outside. Surely, the police can hear the gunfire and would arrive soon, I thought. I was also certain that the neighbours must have alerted the police.

My impression that we were being attacked by robbers was reinforced by the wild yelling in Burmese that accompanied the shooting. "Young Shan girls, come on out. Come out. Open up or we will shoot with cannons," and a number of other unintelligible shouts. I was eager to defend ourselves and said, "Let's get the Czech pistols out." They were locked in a cupboard in my father's bedroom. But fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and we hugged the floor in the huge central hall and waited for the police to arrive. The shooting seemed to go on forever. At one point there was a thud under my body and the floorboard lifted slightly. But I did not pay it much attention until we found out in the morning that a bullet had penetrated the ceiling downstairs near the spot where I had lain. I was shocked and grateful that the bullet had lost its momentum just then. Suddenly, the shooting ceased. We heard someone say in Burmese, "This is the Tatmadaw. There has been a coup."

We were so relieved that it was not robbers after all. But then a long uncertain silence followed, and we waited, not daring to move. Eventually, Tzang who slept downstairs told us to come down. As I came down the broad front stairs with my younger sister, a soldier lifted up his Bren gun, cocked it, and pointed it at me yelling, "Put up your hands and come down one at a time." I was both shocked and angered. How could he behave so rudely towards me? I don't think I have ever felt more humiliated. But I quickly obeyed and raised my hands. We were all herded onto the front lawn and told to sit on our haunches with our hands on our heads.

I wondered if we would all be shot and killed since some of the soldiers were very rough and callous. One of them even said loudly, "It was great fun to shoot." As all the children and women folk came out of the house, the soldiers seemed surprised that there were no men in the house other than my sixty-six year old father and Tzang, then twenty-three.

The MIS (military intelligence) man in civilian clothes asked, "Where is the Mahadevi (my mother)?" He seemed equally surprised to learn that she was in England. The soldiers searched the house, finally leaving at daybreak. We were told that my father had been arrested and taken away. No one knew where Myee was. The children were told to go inside while the grown-ups searched for Myee. He was soon found. I was curious and went upstairs to peep out of a window overlooking where Myee had been found. I don't know what I was expecting to see, but when I saw the white sheet covering his body just by the side of the house, I quickly withdrew in fright. Over the years, I have often wondered if Myee was shot at the instant I was trying to warn him in my dream.

At the time of the coup in 1962, my father had already retired. The armed police guard that had provided for his security around the house had been withdrawn for some time before the coup - maybe even a year previous. The three close retainers - one Burman, two Shan - who had been trained as police officers and became his official bodyguards, had also retired. The retired Burman bodyguard lived by the official front gate of our nine-acre compound. He made his living as a mechanic. The entrance to his workshop was by our front gate. Anyone could enter and leave our compound if they were visiting his garage. We generally used the side gate that was near the house. The guardhouse there was deserted at the time of the coup. The other retired Shan bodyguard lived at the far end of the compound where we kept our milk cows. He made a living selling coffee and tea. Again, anyone could enter our compound at any time by visiting his tea shop. Upon retirement, the third bodyguard had gone back home to his village.

Not far from the tea shop lived our Gurkha cowherd and his family. He fed and milked our twenty or so cows and sold their milk for us to our neighbours and in the market. The only other building in our compound was the three-story building at the back where my half-sister, Sao Sanda, lived on the top floor with her journalist husband, Peter Simms. They were away in Laos. The ground floor was occupied by their employees and their families as well as our drivers and their families - most of them were Karen. Only the maids, who were mother's distant relatives, lived with us in the big house.

On the night of the coup, Burma Army troops detained everybody living in our compound before advancing on our house. From a distance of less than one hundred feet, they indiscriminately opened fire with automatic weapons from all directions. The confused gunfire continued for a time - I do not know exactly how long, but at that time I thought it was for forty-five minutes to an hour. I could be wrong. It may have been for a shorter period. But no one to this day knows exactly why the troops opened fire and why they just as suddenly stopped.

It is possible that my brother, Myee, heard the soldiers creeping up on the house. He had complained of stomach trouble before going to bed the night before. It may have kept him awake. He might have taken the spear to defend himself when he went out to investigate. The nervous soldiers may have seen him, panicked, and opened fire, setting off a chain reaction. Or my brother could have been killed as the troops opened fire according to a pre-determined plan. At the first sound of gunfire, Chao Tzang rolled off his bed and crawled out of his bedroom into the main hall. His bed was directly in front of an open window. Had he sat up instead of rolling off the bed, he too would have been killed. His white mosquito net was riddled with bullet holes. As he crawled into the front hall, he found the front door wide open. My father, who had learnt that Chao Myee was not in the hall upstairs with the rest of the family, had gone downstairs to look for him. He found Chao Tzang by the open front door. Together they shut the door, locked, and bolted it.

In the morning, we found the front door riddled with bullet holes. How my father or Chao Tzang managed to escape being shot is a mystery. When the shooting stopped, the soldiers brought Gopal, an Indian, employed by my halfsister Sao Sanda, to the front door. He told my father in Burmese that it was the Tatmadaw. There had been a coup and the officer in charge ordered the door to be opened. My father did so and was arrested. He and Chao Tzang were then escorted through a field to the opening the soldiers had made in the high hedge surrounding our compound. My father was taken away in a car and my brother was brought back to the house.

An officer told Chao Tzang that they had shot somebody and that maybe the victim was Chao Tzang's brother. We were all told to come out of the house and sit on the front lawn in rows with our hands on our heads. The soldiers then started a search of the house. But one of their bullets had hit the fuse box and much of the house was in total darkness. Fearing an ambush, the soldiers made Chao Tzang enter each room ahead of them. They found nothing except for two automatic pistols that had been presented to my father by the Czechoslovakian government on one of his official visits. They were both locked in a cupboard in my father's bedroom for safety. While we were waiting, an officer ordered the soldiers to pick up their spent cartridges.

Later in the morning, after the soldiers had left, we kids went searching and found over a hundred empty shells that had been overlooked by the soldiers in the dark under some bushes and trees. After the soldiers had completed their search, we were allowed back into the house. As the day broke, the soldiers left and a search began for Chao Myee. His body was found in a flower bed to the left of the front porch. He had been shot in the head and foot. A ceremonial Naga spear was found near his body.

Chao Tzang went to the local police station to report a murder. The police said that they had been prevented from coming by soldiers who had taken over the police station. They filed a murder case and came over to investigate. Everyone who saw the damage to our house agree that my whole family could have been killed. The shots were not fired into the air with the intention of scaring the inhabitants. The soldiers shot to kill. The shots fired at the ground floor were horizontal and anyone crouching or standing would have been hit. The shots fired at the upper floor had the intended trajectory of penetrating the upper walls of the ground floor and hitting anyone hiding on the upper floor. We did not repair the bullet holes assuming that at a later time, a proper investigation could be carried out.

Unfortunately, shortly after we escaped to Thailand in 1963, a fire broke out in the vacant house and destroyed everything. The Ne Win regime then confiscated the nine-acre property and divided it up amongst the top generals who built houses on it. Since then, houses have been built on our property and sold numerous times. Today a road cuts through the property and five giant modern condominiums stand on it. The press also arrived. They were shown around the house and were fully informed about what had happened. But when they got back to their offices, they were prevented from reporting the true story. Instead, the Revolutionary Council issued a statement that said troops carrying out their duty had met with armed resistance and had been forced in self-defense to open fire, accidentally killing one of Sao Shwe Thaike's sons.

 Harn Yawnghwe February 2010 Montreal, Canada

 

Appendix

Saohpa of Yawnghwe Sao Shwe Thaike's letter presented to Dr E Maung, the Minster for Justice, at the opening of the Constitutional Amendment Committee, 22 December 1960 in Rangoon, sets out his personal views on the amendment of the Constitution: 

"During the practical application of the Constitution of the Union of Burma, for the past 13 years, it was found that the Constitution permitted the practice of racism. It appeared that Burma proper had not become a constituent state of the Union, but had taken the place of the British in the administration of the Constituent States. It also appeared as if these States did not join together in a voluntary union but were brought into subordination of Burma proper. These Constituent States had to request Burma proper to provide for their needs.

There is not a single right of self-determination given to the States by the Constitution and all administrative matters have had to be undertaken in accordance with the wishes of the Union Government. As no financial powers were given to the States, nothing could be done for the development of the States; for example, as only Kyats 125 lakhs had been allotted as annual contribution to the Shan State, it appeared that the Shan State deserved only that amount, and no more. The Shan State had no voice in matters relating to the benefits accruing from the finances of the Union Government. All other States were also in the same position.

According to the principle of federation, Burma proper should be one of the Constituent States and enjoy only those rights which the other States enjoyed. But because, under the present Constitution, Burma proper exercised the power and rights of the Union Government, which are greater than those enjoyed by the States, the States are dissatisfied.

No one in the States has the intention of destroying the Union. If Burma proper becomes a Constituent State of the Union, on an equal footing with other States, the dissatisfaction will gradually disappear. Therefore, a true Federal Constitution should be drawn up in all sincerity".

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