This is the third installment in the The Dictators series by The Irrawaddy that delves into the lives and careers of Burma’s two most infamous military chiefs and the cohorts that surrounded them.
Ne Win must have had many sleepless nights in 1976, because in addition to the student protests and the purge of commander-in-chief and defense minister Tin Oo, that year Kachin rebels signed a military alliance with communist insurgents in the northern hills, Gen Kyaw Zaw—one of the Thirty Comrades—quietly left Rangoon and joined the communists on the China border, and the government unearthed a failed coup plot.
On New Year’s Eve, a frazzled and angry Ne Win stormed a boisterous party at the famous Inya Lake Hotel, not far from his presidential palace, and partygoers were shocked to see the general who ruled the country kick the drum set and manhandle a few in the room.
One of the few allies the besieged Ne Win felt he could turn to at this time was his bespectacled intelligence chief, Myat Hmen Tin Oo (not to be confused with former defense minister Tin Oo), who was the dictator’s trusted aide camp. Born in Mudon, Mon State, Tin Oo was an ethnic Mon.
He studied until the 10th standard and joined the Burmese army in 1945 when he was only 15 years old—his tall height allowing him to get away with telling the recruiters he was 18. Tin Oo became a platoon commander when Burmese and Japanese troops marched to Rangoon after defeating the British troops.
Ne Win met Tin Oo in Mudon after returning to Burma with the Japanese forces. Tin Oo’s parents (They both were involved in Thakin movement) asked Ne Win to take care of their four sons, who all joined the army, but Tin Oo lost two of his brothers during the war. Ne Win therefore decided to keep the bright and talented Tin Oo under his watch and not to send him to the battlefield.
After independence, Tin Oo enrolled at Rangoon University, where he studied economics and history. He also studied Marxism at the university and met many students who believed in leftist ideology. One of his colleagues was Chan Aye (whose pen name is Maung Suu San and who in 1988 was one of the NLD executive committee members), who asked him to join the CPB. Tin Oo wasn’t interested, however, and eventually returned to the army and became the aide de camp to then chief of staff Ne Win, who asked him shake up the ineffective intelligence service and build up a military intelligence unit.
Ne Win sent Tin Oo to Saipan Island in the Pacific Ocean to receive training from the CIA, and he later received training from the Royal Military Police in England as well. After the 1962 coup, Tin Oo was assigned to take care of political prisoners, including former President Mahn Win Maung and former Prime Minister U Nu, who were being held in a special detention center called Ye Kyi Aing, located outside of Rangoon.
Tin Oo made preparations to prevent any rescue attempts for U Nu and his cabinet members, and with help from the 4th Burma Rifles, prepared to respond to air raids or heli-borne operations by the special forces of a foreign country.
He also flushed out several assassination attempts against Ne Win, which impressed the new dictator immensely. In addition, Tin Oo went into the field to confirm the death of Than Tun, a leader of the CPB’s White Flag faction and a friend of the late Aung San, who in 1968 was killed in his jungle hideout by an assassin who claimed to be an army deserter.
A bookworm, Tin Oo set up a publishing house within Military Intelligence and recruited members of the communist movement to rejoin the government and work for the MI-funded operation. Two of the books he published, “The Last Days of Thakin Than Tun” and “The last year of Zin & Chit,” written by two surrendered ex-communists, Yebaw (Comrade) Mya and Yebaw Ba Khet, became effective anti-communist propaganda.
Tin Oo was not yet head of the intelligence service, and at the time there was internal conflict in the department. On one side was Col Lwin, also known as “Moustache Lwin,” an old style soldier who was loyal to Ne Win but jealously guarded his intelligence service. On the other side was Brig Maung Maung, who with Ne Win’s blessing received assistance and training from CIA officers at the US Embassy in Rangoon to revamp the intelligence unit. Ne Win was forced to settle the feud, and in February 1961 he fired Maung Maung, a move that soon allowed Tin Oo to rise to the top rapidly.
At that time, whenever Ne Win went abroad he was usually accompanied by Kyaw Zwa Myint, an Anglo-Burmese operation commander who served in the intelligence units. But Kyaw Zwa Myint didn’t like Burmese socialism and reports surfaced that he planned to kill Ne Win.
The assassination did not work out, and before New Win learned of his scheme, Kyaw Zwa Myint fled to the Thai-Burmese border and then to Australia. Prior to Kyaw Zwa Myint leaving Burma, however, Tin Oo’s spy network in Pegu Yoma found out that he was in the area and sent news of his presence to spy headquarters with a question: “What was he doing there?”
Tin Oo quickly queried the War Office, but he received no reply because Col Lwin was afraid of reporting the case to Ne Win. But Tin Oo went straight to his mentor, who summoned senior intelligence officers and told them from then on to report directly to him. Afterwards, Ne Win brought Tin Oo to the War Office and his career took off: he became head of the National Intelligence Bureau and created a new position of chief military assistant to the president—a position more powerful than commander-in-chief. Tin Oo quickly acquired the nickname MI Tin Oo, the name most people in Burma recognize to this day.
Tin Oo, however, lacked combat experience and knew his rivals in the infantry would use this to try and undermine his authority and influence. So he cleverly countered by convincing his colleagues that without sound intelligence, victory in the battlefield could not be achieved, and when the army launched several major offensives against communists and ethnic rebels in the 1970’s, Tin Oo and his intelligence unit helped provide intelligence information to field army commanders. At the time, Tin Oo would personally fly to Pegu Yoma, once a communist stronghold, to help army commanders in their attempt to wipe out the communist insurgency once and for all.
Meanwhile, Tin Oo and his intelligence network rapidly expanded. He initiated Naing Ngan Gong Ye titles, designed to honor Burma’s former politicians and Thakin who fought against the British, and helped Ne Win award the titles. He also managed a secret fund for covert operations inside and outside of Burma, including the monitoring of Burmese living overseas such as embassy personnel and active exiled groups along the borders of Thailand, China and Bangladesh. Tin Oo even said that helped to retrieve money from Ne Win’s secret savings account kept at a Swiss Bank.
Tin Oo knew where his bread was buttered and didn’t hide his admiration for Ne Win. Whenever he had whiskey with his colleagues he would say, “I have only one god—Gen Ne Win.” On the flip side, Ne Win heavily relied on Tin Oo and would usually consult him first before making any decision regarding whom to appoint to the cabinet and top positions in the armed forces.
Later, when Tin Oo was named joint general-secretary of the BSPP, Ne Win’s staff began calling him “number one” and Tin Oo “number one-and-a-half”—behind their backs, naturally. But, of course, such behavior would not go unnoticed by the intensely paranoid junta chief for long.