Myanmar in 1988 was rocked by a mass movement pressing for democratization. Initiated in March by students, the protest soon included ordinary citizens, Buddhist monks, government bureaucrats, and even some junior military officers. In the face of demonstrations, General Ne Win convened an extraordinary meeting of the BSPP, the nation's ruling (and sole legal) political party. On 23 July 1988, at the congress, Ne Win resigned as party chairman, and in his farewell speech, suggested far-reaching economic reforms and a referendum to decide the issue of multiparty elections. Although no one believed Ne Win would relinquish all power, the move nevertheless caught many observers by surprise.
On 18 September 1988, after mounting unrest, the army staged a coup d'état and put in place the SLORC, composed of 19 members of the military and headed by General Saw Maung. Than Shwe was named vice chairman, deputy minister of defense, and army chief of staff. In 1990, he received promotion to full general. In March 1992, he assumed the defense portfolio, and on 23 April 1992, upon the resignation of Saw Maung, who had been behaving erratically, Than Shwe was named chairman of SLORC. The following day he was designated prime minister.