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Myanmar Crisis

Who is Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing? 5 things to know

Retired diplomat says 'big man management style' sows seeds of arrogance

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has taken the reins of power in Myanmar after deposing the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in the Southeast Asian country's latest military coup.   © APF/Jiji

BANGKOK -- On Monday, after months of saber rattling about alleged irregularities in Myanmar's Nov. 8 general election, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing staged the country's third coup since independence from Britain in 1948.

The commander in chief of defense services invoked powers based on Section 417 of the 2008 military-drafted constitution that enables the holder of his office to wrest full legal, judicial and executive power to create an instant dictatorship.

Dubbed the "stiletto coup" for its ungentlemanly, knife-in-the-ribs nature, Min Aung Hlaing's putsch was bloodless -- at least in the first few days -- compared to the last one on Sept. 18, 1988. That left an estimated 500 dead on the streets following six weeks of pro-democracy protests in which another 3,000 people were killed nationwide.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, and President Win Myint were among those arrested. Suu Kyi has been charged with illegally importing walkie-talkies. Criminal convictions could be a bar to future public office.

Here are five questions and answers that provide insights into Min Aung Hlaing and how he might lead Myanmar:

What is his personality?

Born the southern city of Dawei in 1956, Min Aung Hlaing studied law in Yangon before entering the Defense Services Academy in 1974 on his third attempt.

"The senior general is not a listener -- he talks and others listen," Nicholas Coppel, Australia's former ambassador to Myanmar, told Nikkei Asia. Coppel had a number of formal meetings with the senior general in the capital, Naypyitaw. "This big man management style is conducive to ignorance and arrogance," he added, noting "the isolation that comes from being at the top." In 2016, Min Aung Hlaing postponed his retirement by five years -- a bad omen, it turned out.

How did he rise?

He was considered an unremarkable officer until in 2002 he took up a command in Shan state and impressed Senior General Than Shwe. He burnished his battle credentials in 2009 against insurgents in the Kokang region bordering China's Yunnan province. Than Shwe stepped down in 2011, anointing Min Aung Hlaing the new senior general. He subsequently backed the National Ceasefire Agreement, an initiative of President Thein Sein, which was signed in 2015 by nearly a dozen entrenched insurgent groups.

That peace process floundered under Suu Kyi's civilian government and hostilities reignited with ancient ethnic foes, including the Shan and Karen. Min Aung Hlaing earned global infamy in August 2017 when a brutal counterinsurgency sweep forced over 740,000 desperate Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority, over the border into Bangladesh. The U.N. and others found clear evidence of ethnic cleansing, and there were calls for his trial by an international tribunal.

What was his relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi?

In the Machiavellian labyrinth of Myanmar politics, some believe that the relationship was never good though it was initially presented as cordial and collaborative. It came under stress, however, particularly with regard to proposed changes to the constitution. Regular meetings between the pair, both known for being imperious and stubborn, dropped off in 2018, an official told Nikkei. However, in late 2019, Suu Kyi unsuccessfully defended the military against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Why did he stage the coup?

The pretext was allegedly faulty electoral rolls in the November election, but many analysts believe he hoped to become president after reaching his delayed retirement age of 65 in July this year. That ambition was routed by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) when it once again trounced the military's political vehicle, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. It secured about one-tenth as many seats in the lower chamber as the NLD, and half that in the upper chamber.

An armored personnel carrier on the streets of Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city, the day after the military staged a coup on Feb. 1.   © Reuters

When will he relinquish power?

Official statements on Monday spoke of a one-year interregnum, but precedents suggest much longer. Although he stepped out of uniform in the 1970s, General Ne Win only finally retired as chairman of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party in 1988 -- 27 years after his coup in 1962. Senior General Saw Maung's 1988 junta changed its name in 1997 but lasted 23 years with the transition to Than Shwe in 1992. Recent official statements alluded to securing "eternal peace" with Myanmar's numerous ethnic minorities, a few of whom have been at war with the central government for over 70 years. Nationwide peace as a precondition for returning to civilian rule could take decades to attain. Although further mistreatment of Suu Kyi could spark civil unrest, it risks playing into Min Aung Hlaing's hands. "If there is civil disturbance, that could be a pretext for the military to stay for a far longer period," Coppel told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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