Myanmar military's commander-in-chief sits at the helm of three important ministries — defence, border affairs, and home affairs.(AFP File Photo)
Myanmar military's commander-in-chief sits at the helm of three important ministries — defence, border affairs, and home affairs.(AFP File Photo)

Min Aung Hlaing: The military chief who engineered the coup against Suu Kyi

  • The military’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing came under the international community's radar because of his role in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas of Rakhine state, however, very little is known about this obscure figure whose forces detained Suu Kyi.
By hindustantimes.com | Edited by Ayshee Bhaduri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 01, 2021 08:48 PM IST

Myanmar’s military carried out a coup d’etat in the early hours of Monday, detaining de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other civilian leaders. Myanmar is currently under a military imposed communication blackout, international and domestic broadcasters have been taken off air, internet and phone services have also been suspended.

The military in Myanmar, locally known as the Tatmadaw, enjoys the patronage of nationalist Buddhist monks, many of whom strongly supported the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas. The military’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing came under the international community's radar because of his role in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas of Rakhine state, however, very little is known about this obscure figure whose forces detained Suu Kyi.

Who is Min Aung Hlaing?

Min Aung Hlaing spent most of his army career fighting rebels on Myanmar’s eastern border where conflicts related to abuse of ethnic minorities were common. In 2015, a few months before Suu Kyi became a stakeholder in Myanmar’s government, he told the BBC there was no fixed timeline for a full civilian rule. “It could be five years or it could be 10 years, I couldn’t say,” he said.

According to a former classmate interviewed by Reuters, Min Aung Hlaing was an unremarkable cadet, who had been admitted to the country’s elite Defense Services Academy (DSA) on his third attempt, but he was always promoted albeit at a slower pace than his classmates. “He was promoted regularly and slowly,” the former classmate from DSA told Reuters.

His Facebook account carried hundreds of pictures of him meeting and greeting foreign dignitaries overseas and has thousands of ardent followers before it was suspended by Facebook over his role in the violence against Rohingyas.

How powerful is he?

The commander-in-chief sits at the helm of three important ministries — defence, border affairs, and home affairs. While the civilian administration led by Suu Kyi has the power to enact legislation, the commander-in-chief holds the ultimate authority over their enforcement. The police, to the border guards, the General Administration Department all report to him.

The Burmese military finances itself through two holding companies which it runs, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation. Their accounts are not subject to public scrutiny and the operators wield monopolistic control over several key sectors, like beer and tobacco. Hlaing is a major shareholder in MEHL.

The military chief has the power to appoint 25% of the parliamentary seats. This grants the military a veto over any proposed changes to the constitution, which requires 75% approval. The constitution forbids Suu Kyi from becoming president because she had children with her British husband, who are foreign nationals, but she is regarded to be the de facto civilian leader and has to share power with the military and Hlaing by default. A fact that critics say explains her denial of the atrocities commissioned by Hlaing.

Graft, sanction

Members of his family including his son, daughter-in-law, and daughter have been accused of corruption, with one report in Myanmar Now citing his son was leased government property at low prices for business purposes.

After his role in the 2012 Rohingya massacre came to light Min Aung Hlaing along with four other military generals and their immediate families were hit with travel restrictions. Myanmar Now reported this particular travel ban might have become a thorn for Hlaing’s daughter who had invested vast amounts of money in the country’s nascent movie production scene.

After the horrors of Rohingya genocide came to light the world collectively criticised Suu Kyi for her denial of the matter. Sometime later the focus shifted to Hlaing for a brief period, citing him as the chief architect of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign.

“Min Aung Hlaing is calling the shots. Articles about Suu Kyi are exactly what he wants to see; with more focus on her and none on him, he has more freedom to carry out his ethnic cleansing campaign,” wrote Huffington Post.

As the focus shifted to Hlaing and the Tatmadaw, the US re-imposed sanctions that former president Barack Obama had lifted.

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