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Myanmar Crisis

Fear and ambition in Myanmar: Why top general triggered the coup

Once accepting of democracy, Min Aung Hlaing takes sharp turn to oust rival Suu Kyi

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's commander-in-chief, shakes hands with National League for Democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi before their meeting in Hlaing's office in Naypyitaw on Dec. 2, 2015.   © Reuters

YANGON -- Once known to be relatively sympathetic toward Myanmar's democratic transition, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on Monday led the military coup that ousted de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government and reestablished a military junta on Monday.

The move appeared like a sharp turn from the collaborative relationship he once had with Suu Kyi. But the precision by which the coup unfolded suggests the general was planning it for some time, driven by concern over the military's weakening clout and his own political ambitions.

The signs were there even before the November general elections, which the military cites as the reason for its coup. Min Aung Hlaing criticized the government for mishandling preparations for the vote. He doubled down on claims of voter fraud after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy trounced the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the polls.

The military had urged the now ousted civilian government to open an investigation, arguing that voter fraud is a blow to the very heart of Myanmar's democracy. But Suu Kyi, who officially held the post of state counselor, and the election commission refused to do so.

"Min Aung Hlaing is stubborn, and values rules and principles," said one person who knows the general. Monday's coup followed the constitutional provision for emergency military powers to a tee, much in line with this observation.

Min Aung Hlaing was born in 1956 in the southern Myanmar city of Dawei. He studied law in Yangon before joining the Defense Services Academy, and later enlisted in the army.

He was initially considered a relatively average officer. But he caught the eye of then-junta leader Than Shwe after commanding troops in an ethnic conflict near Myanmar's border with China. He was placed in charge of the entire military in 2011, largely thanks to Than Shwe's support.

Min Aung Hlaing also played a key role in the post-junta government of President Thein Sein, a popular former general who was praised for his integrity and reformist agenda. One of Thein Sein's biggest legacies was a ceasefire agreement signed with eight armed ethnic groups, which Min Aung Hlaing backed as chief of the armed forces.

Min Aung Hlaing turned 60 in 2016, the year NLD took power, but he chose to stay on instead of retiring.

He also began hinting at political aspirations around this time, posting his activities at home and overseas on Facebook in a seeming attempt to boost his public profile.

As Myanmar's top military official, Min Aung Hlaing has visited countries like China, Japan, India and Russia to discuss security issues separately from the government. When Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Myanmar in January 2020, he met with Min Aung Hlaing as well as with Suu Kyi, demonstrating the general's clout.

But he came under fire in 2017 over the violence against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority. His Facebook profile has been shut down, while the U.S. and the U.K. have sanctioned him for his alleged role in the atrocities.

His relationship with Suu Kyi also started to fray. "They stopped having regular meetings around 2018," a high-ranking Myanmar official said.

In 2019, the NLD began debating a constitutional amendment that would curb the military's role in Myanmar politics, triggering pushback from Min Aung Hlaing and other military officers.

"Our military has always had a leading role in politics," he told cadets in December.

Min Aung Hlaing was expected to retire last July when he turned 65. There was speculation that he would run for president.

But the USDP, under which he would have run, suffered a stinging loss against the NLD in November. Even with the 166 military-appointed seats in parliament, the party faced a narrow path to taking a majority.

The military-appointed vice presidency still would have been an option. But Min Aung Hlaing's unwillingness to play second fiddle to Suu Kyi likely contributed to the eventual coup.

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