Mladen ANTONOV / AFP
Accused of overseeing a genocide, kicked off Facebook, and now the mastermind of a coup that crushed Myanmar’s young democracy: new junta chief Min Aung Hlaing is a real-life villain to much of the country.
“I hate him,” Yangon resident Phyo, who did not want to use her real name out of fear for her safety, told VICE World News.
“He likes to be admired and respected like any psychotic dictator in history,” said another activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for the same reason.
The short and sometimes bespectacled commander-in-chief added coup to his atrocity-laden resume on Monday, when soldiers arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her top allies. A yearlong state of emergency was declared and power transferred to Min Aung Hlaing under an 11-person junta government called the State Administrative Council.
The power grab happened hours before the country’s newly-elected parliament was supposed to convene in the capital Naypyitaw following the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) resounding victory in November elections. It was the second successive electoral landslide for Suu Kyi’s NLD since reforms in 2011 that were supposed to break the shackles of decades of military rule dating back to 1962.
But the military didn’t like the result this time.
After suffering an embarrassing defeat its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party—an offshoot of the country’s various ruling juntas—cried foul and made baseless accusations of voter fraud. After several days of tensions last week—which included mixed signals from military officials, including Min Aung Hlaing, and the presence of army vehicles in some city streets—the military took over.
Security forces detained senior members of the government, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, as well as civil society leaders. At least 133 officials and 14 activists have been arrested since Monday, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners.
“He likes to be admired and respected like any psychotic dictator in history,” one activist said when describing Min Aung Hlaing.
There remain many unknowns about the reason behind the coup. After all, the military had already entrenched political and economic powers, so what did it have to gain by sparking public backlash and international isolation? One plausible explanation is that it was linked to Min Aung Hlaing’s desire for the top job, especially since the 64-year-old is due to retire as commander-in-chief later this year.
A closer look at his background reveals a quietly ambitious general who rose through the ranks of the armed forces—known as the Tatmadaw in Myanmar—and developed a fearsome reputation among the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.
Min Aung Hlaing was born in the southerly town of Dawei and studied law at Yangon University before entering the Tatmadaw’s Defense Services Academy, its version of West Point.
He spent the next several years working his way up through the military, including a stint leading one of the Tatmadaw’s Light Infantry Divisions—a specialist force that would later be implicated in the brutal Rohingya crackdown in 2017—before becoming joint chief of staff in 2010. When long-term junta leader Than Shwe retired as military chief in 2011, he appointed Min Aung Hlaing as his successor. He was promoted to Senior-General in March 2013.
Derek Mitchell, the United States Ambassador to Myanmar between 2012 and 2016, told VICE World News that he met with Min Aung Hlaing about a dozen times during his stint in the country.
“It was not typical to meet the commander-in-chief when I first arrived, and I made it a normal thing to go and engage with him,” Mitchell said. “He gained confidence as he went. I think early on he was nervous about meeting the ambassador, but then he became more confident, and I wondered what that meant.”
“We had very frank conversations. He certainly listened and engaged, and always had a smile on his face. That was his way,” Mitchell said, adding that meetings were conducted through a translator but that Min Aung Hlaing could understand some English.
“He gained confidence as he went. I think early on he was nervous about meeting the ambassador, but then he became more confident, and I wondered what that meant.”
Mitchell left Myanmar in 2016, and is now the Director of the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC. His successors have had little interaction with Min Aung Hlaing, particularly since the U.S. placed sanctions on him, as well as other military leaders, under the Magintsky Act for his role in overseeing “clearance operations” against the Rohingya in 2017.
The UN has called for the senior general to be investigated and prosecuted on genocide charges for his part in the Rohingya crackdown, as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes for the Tatmadaw’s activities in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
During the crackdown, he took to Facebook to spread propaganda and whip up hate speech against the Rohingya minority, and was booted off the platform in August 2018. The social media giant banned Min Aung Hlaing and other military-linked accounts after the UN found they had “committed or enabled serious human rights abuses in the country.”
His business interests have also taken a hit following Monday’s coup. On Friday, Japanese brewer Kirin announced it was terminating its contract with Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, the vast military conglomerate that Min Aung Hlaing heads. Other army-linked companies are likely to be targeted.
“We call on all companies that remain in business with the military regime to follow Kirin’s example and immediately cut ties,” rights group Justice for Myanmar said in a statement immediately after the announcement.
Such developments, coupled with the growing anger inside the country, would appear to justify calls that the coup is not in the country’s best interests, nor the military’s.
“People in Myanmar… recognize that this is a regressive move. It will not help the economy, and it will not help them navigate the region, vis-a-vis China. I think there’s a lot of shock, but now you’re starting to see this civil disobedience campaign,” said Mitchell, referring to the rising non-violent movement that has drawn doctors, teachers and students out to protest the coup.
Min Aung Hlaing has been targeted by name in bold shows of defiance. Posters seen in Myanmar feature his face and the words “fuck the coup.” Myanmar nationals working in Thailand also stomped on his portrait and ripped it into pieces during demonstrations against the coup in Bangkok this week.
Those involved in protests inside the country appear unwilling to give up any time soon.
“I’ve hardly slept or eaten, and even forgotten to shower,” said Phyo. “It’s only been a few days, but it feels like 10 years.”
Oliver Slow is writing a book about Myanmar’s military