Ne Win, Buddhism and a different Burmese History



General Ne Win ruled Burma for 26 years after seizing power in a coup in 1962. Ne Win, like many Burmese leaders, was superstitious and interested in numerology. Numerology proposes a connection between numbers and coinciding events.

Although usually considered a ‘divine science’ of some type, the study of relationships and connections could be central to many religious practices (Man and God, Ātman and Brahman, the idea that actions have consequences (karma), paṭiccasamuppāda).

Famously in 1987, based around Ne Win’s ‘lucky’ number 9 he ordered that all banknotes should be divisible by nine and introduced the 45-kyat and 90-kyat notes. In 1970 he ordered that everyone in Burma should start driving on the right side of the road, rather than the left – some reports stating that this was because Burma had moved politically too far to the left. Famously, he is said to have bathed in Dolphin’s blood in an attempt to extend his life and regain his youth. On another occasion he is reported to have dressed as a king, and, in the middle of the night to have been seen walking backwards over a bridge in Rangoon. All of these actions come in some ways from yadaya rituals, which are intended to avert, prevent or delay misfortune. It could be said that they even have a connection with apotropaic Buddhism – religious acts not connected with Buddhist philosophy but but Buddhist rituals that are performed to protect one from misfortune and danger. It could also be suggested that the ‘numerology’ of the ‘969’ movement and the opposed ‘786’ are similarly influenced.

Interestingly, in an interview with Chit Hlaing, who worked alongside many of Burma’s most prominent leaders, including Ne Win during his time as leader a meeting with the former leader in 1995 is described. Ne Win never had much time for Buddhism and his politics were very secular in nature, unlike U Nu. However, during this meeting with Chit Hlaing:

‘Ne Win confessed that he would not have staged the coup in 1962 if he had studied Buddhism and meditation earlier in life. Ne Win elaborated further if he had known Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta—the three Dharma aspects of life—at the time, he would not have seized power.’

One could simply consider this to be the mellowed, reflective thinking of an old man. However, it could also offer an insight into how religion could shape the thinking of the current candidates in the 2015 elections in Burma and how Buddhist thinking could influence current debates.

In 1966 Ne Win visited America on a State visit. The following film gives an insight into how the Burmese regime was considered in a positive way at this time: