Min Aung Hlaing: the heir to Myanmar’s military junta

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Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s armed forces commander-in-chief, has emerged as the country's new strongman following Monday’s coup. He has promised to hold elections after a one-year state of emergency but many remain wary since the country’s military chief has proven reluctant to call it quits.

Myanmar’s military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, should have been quietly preparing to retire in July when he turns 65, the official retirement age for the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces.

But instead of preparing to leave office and focusing on preparing a successor, the general consolidated power in a military coup.

Citing electoral fraud in the November 2020 general elections – in which Nobel laureate and de facto ruler Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide 83 percent of the vote – the junta imposed a one-year state of emergency that will be followed by “free and fair multiparty general elections”, according to a statement released by the office of Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services.

But it is impossible to know if Min Aung Hlaing will keep his word. "The aim of the army has always been to run the country," said Nehginpao Kipgen, executive director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Jindal School of International Affairs in India, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Rising up the ranks

Min Aung Hlaing has long intended to exercise power alone without the burden of a civilian head of government, according to a 2017 New York Times investigation. "His plan is to become president by 2020," U Win Htein, an adviser to Suu Kyi, told the US daily.

The results of the November 8 parliamentary elections, however, dented his ambitions. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept the polls, confirming its position as the country's leading political power. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) got just a fraction of the vote, in contrast.

It was an electoral setback that Min Aung Hlaing could not accept. Political tensions had been rising since the election results were announced, sparking fears of a military coup that escalated over the weekend. The military "first disputed the results alleging massive fraud, then, after the validation of the vote by the electoral commission, they said they had no choice but to take power by force", said Kipgen.

The coup puts Min Aung Hlaing, the embodiment of Myanmar’s military system, at the helm of a country that has been under military rule for nearly half a century. Born in the southern city of Tavoy, now known as Dawei, Min Aung Hlaing studied in Rangoon, the country’s former capital, now Yangon. At 18, he entered the country’s military academy after a two-year stint in law school.

It’s difficult to get a clear idea of the young recruit’s personality or confirm various stories about his youth. Some childhood friends described him as taciturn and reserved to Reuters, while others described him as a "bully who tended to humiliate his classmates", according to testimonies collected by the New York Times. Hla Oo, a Burmese writer exiled in Australia who knew him as a child, recalled a hard-working, studious young man who "hardened himself in battle in the army ranks".

But he was not an obvious candidate for a future commander-in-chief. "He climbed up the ranks slowly but surely," a former military academy officer told Reuters. Noted Kipgen: "He was not someone who stood out in the Burmese army."

His luck began to turn when he joined the army’s 88th Light Infantry Division, which was commanded at that time by a certain Colonel Than Shwe.

Min Aung Hlaing made Than Shwe his mentor and continued his career in the shadow of the man who, in 1992, rose to become head of the country’s military junta.

Cultivating an image on social media

In 2011, Than Shwe made Min Aung Hlaing his successor and the first armed forces commander-in-chief in Myanmar’s post-military junta era. His selection over other more experienced generals was likely due to "the fact that Than Shwe thought he would be in the best position to perpetuate his vision for the army and the country", explained Kipgen.

As Than Shwe’s heir and faithful to the vision of an all-powerful military, Min Aung Hlaing negotiated with Suu Kyi, charting the course of Myanmar’s democratic transition. But as military chief, he played both sides. On the one hand, he "was very careful in his dealings with the head of government, avoiding open confrontation as much as possible", Kipgen said.

But he also did everything possible to show that the army remains the real master of the political game. He went on several official trips, particularly to China and Japan, and received foreign dignitaries, such as Pope Francis in 2017. The trips and meetings were carefully recorded and shared on social media. "He is very good at cultivating an image of statesmanship, paying attention to the smallest detail," said Min Zin, director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar, a think tank in Yangon, in an interview with the New York Times.

But his public relations efforts failed to work outside Myanmar. For the international community, Min Aung Hlaing is regarded, above all, as the man behind the persecution of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority starting in 2016.

"Even if he is not directly and personally involved, militarily – as head of the army – he approved this campaign," noted Kipgen.

While several countries have adopted the term “genocide” to describe the military’s violations against the Rohingyas, Min Aung Hlaing openly defended the army’s actions on Facebook and Twitter. The military chief only uses the term "Bengali" to refer to the Rohingya, suggesting that they are foreigners who have no business being on Burmese soil. He also justified the army's actions by repeatedly stating that "our regions must be controlled by the national races".

He was banned from travel to the United States and also banned from Twitter and Facebook in 2019.

With Min Aung Hlaing’s rise to power, the hardline faction within the military has put an end – for now – to Myanmar’s fragile democratic process. And for those who may have been looking forward to the military chief's retirement, they will have to wait a little longer.

This article has been translated from the original in French.