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In Myanmar coup, grievance and ambition drove military chief’s power grab

Myanmar’s military commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, attends a ceremony in 2018. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — In early 2018, just months after Myanmar's armed forces launched a brutal campaign against the Muslim Rohingya minority, Nicholas Coppel, then Australia's ambassador to the country, had an audience with the military commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Coppel, looking for signs of humanity in the short, bespectacled general whose forces are now on trial on genocide charges, didn’t find any. In a lengthy monologue, Min Aung Hlaing instead disparaged Muslims, at one point summoning aides to present Coppel with a grainy photo of a man standing with multiple women and numerous children — his attempt to back up a baseless claim that rampant Muslim reproduction was threatening the Buddhist-majority country.

“There was no remorse” from Min Aung Hlaing, Coppel said. “I was more left with the feeling that the job might not be completed.”

Min Aung Hlaing now sits at the helm of political power in Myanmar, after orchestrating a coup last week in which his troops detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others in her democratically elected government. The power grab has returned the military to government after a 10-year, quasi-democratic experiment, and threatens to destabilize the region by reigniting armed conflict and long-standing popular grievances.

Interviews with former foreign officials who interacted with him and others close to the Myanmar military paint a picture of a man who was controlling, egotistical and ambitious, unwilling to go quietly into retirement as scheduled later this year. Disdainful of Suu Kyi, he was angered by her party’s repeat landslide victory in November elections. His personal grievances are responsible for the political crisis unfolding in Myanmar, these people said.

All spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing ongoing work in the country and sensitivity around the private discussions.

“This is a proud man,” said a former Western diplomat with extensive firsthand experience with the commander in chief. He “distrusted and disliked Suu Kyi intensely,” another former diplomat said, and “never reconciled to civilian rule led by her from the very beginning.”

Protesters return to Myanmar’s streets to oppose military coup

On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, detaining Aung San Suu Kyi, elected ministers and others in a predawn raid. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

As protests against the coup are met with increasing force, including rubber bullets and some live rounds, a looming question is how far Min Aung Hlaing will go to keep his hold on power. Nothing in his past shows an ability to back down or compromise — rather, he feels compelled to display strength when challenged, people familiar with him say. He is already banned from Facebook and subject to U.S. sanctions for his role in the Rohingya crackdown, and it is unclear what could change Min Aung Hlaing’s behavior.

Popular uprisings in 1988 and 2007 were put down with bloody force by the same military that Min Aung Hlaing defines himself by, and which he now leads.

Calls to representatives of the military-led government were not answered. On Monday, addressing the nation for the first time since the coup, Min Aung Hlaing again claimed voter fraud in the November elections, promised that things would be different than during the army’s previous reign, and welcomed foreign investment.

Law student to senior general

Min Aung Hlaing was born in 1956 in a region along the Andaman Sea six years before the military seized power in a coup led by Ne Win, according to a biography compiled by the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, a Yangon-based think tank. He grew up in Yangon in a city-center apartment close to where thousands of protesters have gathered in recent days.

After finishing high school, he began to study law. While his classmates were demonstrating against the military government, he focused his energy elsewhere. He applied to the Defense Services Academy and was admitted on his third try in 1974, during the throes of Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism,” a disastrous experiment in governance that helped drive the country into political dysfunction, deep poverty and isolation.

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Three years later, Min Aung Hlaing began his formal military career, one that has been shaped by the armed forces’ often brutal operations against ethnic armies and their supporters — campaigns defined by the burning of villages, rape and forced conscription of civilians. In June 2008, he was named head of a bureau overseeing troops across a swath of northeastern Myanmar where ethnic armed groups were vying for power, and the next summer he launched two attacks there.

One of those campaigns, near Myanmar’s northern border, sent tens of thousands of refugees streaming into China. In the other, villagers were tortured and killed, according to the Shan Human Rights Foundation. One woman, the group said at the time, was fatally shot in the head and her body dumped into a pit toilet.

Myanmar’s military has consistently defended operations like this in terms of national unity. At the height of the Rohingya crackdown in 2017, Min Aung Hlaing said the “Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job,” using the name “Bengali” derisively for the Rohingya.

In March 2011, he was named commander in chief ahead of higher-ranking colleagues, just as Myanmar was beginning a quasi-democratic transition and slowly opening to the world. Western officials and diplomats poured in, encouraged by steps such as Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010. Meeting Min Aung Hlaing for the first time, they found a man who was hesitant and almost nervous, a product of his insular institution.

Myanmar officials were “encouraging more Western interaction with him, because he wasn’t exposed to the world” outside the indoctrination of the military, said the former Western diplomat.

His own man

The commander in chief emerged as someone who could not be controlled — not even by the general who picked him for the role, Than Shwe. A person familiar with the thinking of higher-ranking generals said they saw Min Aung Hlaing as the biggest obstacle to their vision of democratic progress, more concerned instead with “building his empire.”

The apprehension he had in meetings with foreign diplomats and leaders quickly disappeared, replaced instead by a bold arrogance.

In meetings, former diplomats said, Min Aung Hlaing would frequently cut off his Myanmar language interpreter, correcting and talking over them in English, which he was learning in his spare time. It was a “control thing to show he was in charge,” the former Western diplomat said. “He wanted to show that he was the man.”

Actions to assert himself belied the intellectual facade the general was trying to present, even as he got better in using diplomatic language and legal arguments in meetings.

“He doesn’t listen,” Coppel said. “He has a view, and he feels his view as commander in chief should prevail.”

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In a particularly bold example, Min Aung Hlaing asked Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during an official visit in 2016 to meet with him at the military headquarters, instead of Lee’s hotel, a person familiar with the matter said. The move would have been against protocol — Lee, as a head of government, is senior to the military commander. The Singaporeans pushed back, and ultimately the commander in chief gave in. (Singapore is one of Myanmar’s biggest investors.) Singapore’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

Nowhere was the desire for control more evident than in his relationship with Suu Kyi. Both are equally headstrong and see themselves as the country’s rightful leader — she with the weight of the people behind her, and Min Aung Hlaing with the powerful military.

Suu Kyi showed an “obstinate desire to subordinate, even humiliate” the generals, said a former foreign senior military official. The Myanmar military saw Suu Kyi’s government as incompetent and “far too considerable a security issue,” the official added.

Pathway to power

To many in Myanmar, Min Aung Hlaing’s coup signifies not only a return to the fearful days of military rule — of surveillance, spying and international isolation — but to the corruption and excesses of those at the top. As commander in chief, he has authority over the military’s two business conglomerates, which have interests in virtually every sector, including the jade and mining industries, which are rife with human rights abuses.

He is fond of golf, a person familiar with the matter said, the game of Myanmar’s elites. His two children in recent years have attempted to fashion themselves as socialites, mixing with Yangon’s upper classes. Aung Pyae Sone, his son, operates businesses including a medical supply company and a restaurant. The restaurant permit was awarded without other bidding, with rent well below market value, according to local investigative outlet Myanmar Now.

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Aung Pyae Sone also developed a photography hobby, according to people who know him. In 2018, a gallery he is involved with hosted an exhibition titled “The Journey of Blood Jade,” with ­photos ironically showing the difficulties of the laborers in the jade-mining industry. He owns a resort on the popular Chaung Tha beach, which a businessman in the area described as a “castle” serving family and friends rather than customers.

Aung Pyae Sone could not be reached for comment.

Min Aung Hlaing’s daughter, Khin Thiri Thet Mon, started a film and TV production company in 2017, Myanmar business records show. The company has muscled into entertainment by vastly outspending its rivals, offering huge contracts twice as lucrative as those of competitors, according to people in the industry. His daughter-in-law, meanwhile, hosts beauty pageants and television shows.

The commander in chief in recent months has embarked on a charm offensive of his own, fashioning himself more as a head of government. He visited Buddhist monks and other religious leaders, donating supplies and money. He met with ethnic leaders, many of whom felt disenfranchised under Suu Kyi’s civilian government. He traveled widely, shopping for arms, and gave interviews.

Perhaps most telling of these was an interview with Russia Today in June, on a visit to the country. The Russian interviewer at the state-backed television station pointed out that under Myanmar’s constitution, the general can serve his country “at a higher level, including in its most senior position,” and expressed hope that he would be able to “perform duties with higher authorities.”

“Thank you,” he replied. “I always have such desires.”

Kyaw Ye Lynn in Yangon contributed to this report.

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