General behind Myanmar Coup is Aung San Suu Kyi's longtime rival

Written By: Richard C. Paddock © 2021 The New York Times The New York Times
Washington, US Published: Dec 06, 2021, 03:29 PM(IST)

File photo of Myanmar military junta leader Min Aung Hlaing. Photograph:( Reuters )

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Min Aung Hlaing is known to be highly ambitious and unwilling to give up power. He faced mandatory retirement in 2016 when he turned 60 but extended his tenure for five years

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Myanmar junta that seized power Feb. 1, has long been Aung San Suu Kyi’s adversary.

For five years, the two leaders were part of an uneasy power-sharing arrangement in which she headed the civilian side of government and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the army commander in chief, maintained absolute control over the military, the police and the border guards.

The two rarely spoke to each other.

Min Aung Hlaing is known to be highly ambitious and unwilling to give up power. He faced mandatory retirement in 2016 when he turned 60 but extended his tenure for five years. Soon after the coup, and just before he turned 65, he scrapped the mandatory retirement age for the commander in chief altogether. Many believed he wanted to become president.

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While a cadet at the military academy, he was known for bullying his juniors and for his tendency to criticize and blame others. His contemporaries gave him a nickname meaning cat feces, an especially vulgar epithet in Burmese.

In 2009, the troops he led in northeastern Myanmar drove tens of thousands of people from ethnic enclaves in what locals described as a brutal campaign of murder, rape and systematic arson.

As commander in chief, he oversaw the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingya in 2017 that killed thousands and forced more than 700,000 to flee the country. He is said to be a tough negotiator who has maintained a strong grip on the armed forces.

In 2008, the previous military regime adopted a constitution that was devised to keep the presidency in the hands of military leaders. It gives the army commander in chief the power to appoint 25% of Parliament and gives Parliament the power to choose the president.

It also barred anyone from becoming president who has a spouse or a child who is a citizen of a foreign country. The provision clearly targeted Aung San Suu Kyi: her husband was a British citizen, as are her two sons.

But that hasn’t been enough of a head start for the hugely unpopular Min Aung Hlaing to win. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy crushed the military-backed party in 2015 by winning 80% of Parliament’s nonappointed seats. In 2020, she repeated the feat, winning by an even greater margin.

Thwarted at the polls, the general declared her election victory to be fraudulent and led a coup on Feb. 1, hours before the new Parliament was scheduled to be sworn in.

Early that morning, soldiers and the police arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and other party leaders. She has been detained ever since.

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