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Min Aung Hlaing | The man behind the coup

When Min Aung Hlaing became Myanmar’s military chief in 2011, the country was transitioning into quasi democracy. The military had introduced a new Constitution in 2008, a year after the violent crackdown of the Buddhist monks who led the ‘saffron revolution’.

Senior General Than Shwe, who had been in power since 1992, had handed powers to a new transition government of President Than Sein, a former military officer. Aung San Suu Kyi and many other political prisoners were released. All eyes were on the little-known General Min Aung Hlaing, who was described by blogger Hla Oo, who knew the commander from his childhood, as “a battle-hardened warrior of the brutal Burmese Army”.

Initially, the General endorsed the government’s efforts to reach out to the political opposition and initiate a peace process with different insurgent groups. When Ms. Suu Kyyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept the 2015 election, the military accepted the results.

But the political peace did not last long. When the NLD swept the 2020 election with a bigger mandate, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a proxy of the military, alleged election fraud. On February 1, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing carried out the third coup in the country’s history, declaring a state of emergency and detaining elected leaders, including Ms. Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

Also read: Explainer | Why did the Myanmar military stage a coup?

Ever since, the Myanmar military has unleashed violence on protesters, killing over 50 people. International criticism is mounting. But the man behind the coup appears to be unmoved. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military that controlled the country through direct rule for about 50 years is called, is notorious for its repressive tactics. The soldiers had killed hundreds of protesters in the past, incarcerated thousands of activists and established a system in which the Tatmadaw’s interests are perennially protected.

Partial democracy

Even when the military allowed partial democracy, the Generals resisted even suggestions from NLD leaders to change the military-written Constitution that has reserved a quarter of seats in Parliament and three key ministries in the government—defence, border and home affairs — for the soldiers. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing never committed to full transition. In 2015, a few months before the elections, he said he had no timeline for full civilian rule: “It could be five years or it could be 10 years, I couldn’t say.” In five years, he ended even the partial civilian rule.

Born in the southern city of Dawei in 1956, Min Aung Hlaing did his school and college education in Yangon. He graduated in law in Yangon university before entering the elite Defense Services Academy in 1974. As a commanding officer, he led several military campaigns against the country’s myriad rebels. But his rise to the top echelons of the powerful military was sealed after he led the 2009 offensive against the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army, an insurgents group in the Kokang region, along the border of China’s Yunnan province. Within one week, the Myanmar military dislodged thousands of insurgents from the border. The campaign also resulted in thousands of refugees fleeing the border villages to the Chinese side of the border. Within the military, the campaign was hailed as a victory and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing got the attention of Senior General Than Shwe. In August 2010, he was appointed joint chief of staff. And in March 2011, when Gen. Than Shwe, in his mid-70s, retired, he picked Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as his successor.

The road to coup

The General hit headlines in 2017 when the military launched a sweeping counterinsurgency operation in the Rakhine State that led to at least 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted ethnic and religious minority, fleeing the country. The UN Human Rights Council called for investigation into alleged genocide and crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine and Shan states. Following the UN call in 2018, Facebook took down Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s pages that had millions of followers. Ms. Suu Kyi had defended the campaign against Rohingya internationally, but at home, several reports pointed to growing rifts between her and the military commander.

When the NLD swept the 2020 election, the Army found the rising popularity of the party and its leader as a threat. The Generals made three demands to Ms. Suu Kyi, according to a Reuters report: disband the Election Commission, announce a probe into alleged election frauds and postpone the meeting of Parliament. Ms. Suu Kyi said ‘no’ to all three. In January, General Min Aung Hlaing issued a direct threat to the government. “The Constitution should be revoked if laws are not followed,” he said. And then, the military moved to capture power on February 1, hours before the new Parliament was to be convened.

The military has promised elections, but it hasn’t given any timeline. The public, having experienced at least limited liberties for 10 years, stays defiant. As protests spread, the Generals turned to their favourite playbook of repression. However, despite the bloodshed, protests continue to swell the streets, unlike 1988 and 2007 when the military restored order through force. Perhaps this is the biggest challenge the junta faces today in its bid to consolidate power.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 3:08:35 AM |

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