It is delusional to think that the Myanmar junta’s No. 2 man will seize power from the junta boss and release the country’s detained civilian leaders.
But some observers like to imagine that deputy military chief Vice Senior General Soe Win would take it upon himself to purge junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, given all the mistakes he has been making.
But time and again, Soe Win has proved that he would never take such a step, and retains allegiance to his senior.
Since seizing power last year, Min Aung Hlaing has made two long trips to Russia. The first was in June 2021, just four months after the February coup, demonstrating his trust in his deputy.
He also made a long visit to Russia in July this year, but the coup some people dreamed of did not materialize. Soe Win’s loyalty to his senior means he has lost the opportunity to salvage his name from the list of coup co-conspirators.
Most importantly, while Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as the junta chief, is taking the helm in managing the regime’s administrative affairs, his deputy Soe Win, as the deputy commander-in-chief of defense services and the commander-in-chief (Army), is responsible mainly for overseeing offensive operations against all armed groups ranging from ethnic armed organizations to People’s Defence Force groups (PDFs) to urban guerrilla units launching hit-and-run attacks against regime targets in the cities, according to military sources.
Over the past 18 months, Soe Win has proved to be a Min Aung Hlaing loyalist, committing himself to crushing all anti-regime forces by launching airstrikes and deploying combatants.
“The deputy military chief is responsible for [waging] the war. Thanks to Soe Win, Min Aung Hlaing has been able to maintain his position,” former captain Nyi Thuta, one of the first military personnel to desert the military, recently told The Irrawaddy. Captain Nyi Thuta formed the “People’s Goal” group to help military personnel wishing to join the Civil Disobedience Movement, and has contact with active personnel.
Aside from Soe Win, other top generals include Chief of General Staff (Army, Navy and Air) General Maung Maung Aye, Defense Minister General Mya Tun Oo, Lieutenant General Moe Myint Tun, and Lieutenant General Ye Win Oo. But none of them are likely to want to risk their current status as well as the dominant position of the military, which has control over everything in Myanmar, to purge Min Aung Hlaing and hand power back to civilian leaders.
“The military officials do not like civilian rule, because their privileges were restricted,” said former captain Nyi Thuta.
Min Aung Hlaing’s subservient junior
Soe Win surprisingly secured the No. 2 position in Myanmar’s military over more senior generals, just like Min Aung Hlaing did.
Min Aung Hlaing was part of the 19th intake of the Defense Services Academy, while Soe Win was from the 22nd. When former military dictator Than Shwe stepped down, he made a surprising choice and handed the military to Min Aung Hlaing and Soe Win despite having many other generals to choose from.
Than Shwe’s thinking was that the military chief would have to retire after the five-year term of the first elected government. The deputy military chief would then have to lead the military to maintain its role during the power transfer to the second elected government, a follower of Than Shwe told The Irrawaddy.
“But then, Min Aung Hlaing breached that rule,” he said.
Min Aung Hlaing refused to retire after reaching 60 and had the retirement age extended through a directive of the defense council, which he controls. Since the putsch, he has made himself the country’s de facto military leader for life, while also removing the age restriction for the deputy military chief, in this case, Soe Win. In other words, Min Aung Hlaing unfairly blocked Soe Win from becoming the military chief.
But Soe Win seems to be comfortable and has apparently never thought about using his position to turn against his boss.
Besides being second in command of the entire armed forces, Soe Win is also commander-in-chief (Army), a position that is more powerful than those of his Navy and Air Force counterparts.
Rather, has has been busy attempting to crush the resistance for Min Aung Hlaing while sharing his political stand.
“He is content with being the second man. He is only too satisfied to drink and fight,” said a retired military officer.
In the not very distant past, in 1992, then deputy military chief General Than Shwe purged his senior, military chief Senior General Saw Maung, who had a mental disorder. He also objected to Saw Maung’s public statement that the army would return to the barracks after handing power over to a winning party in the 1990 election. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the election but was not allowed to take power.
In Myanmar’s modern military history dating back to 1962, no deputy chief or other high-ranking military officer has ever seized power from his chief to hand it back to an elected government.
Soe Win, the silent killer
Soe Win holds the highest rank among his classmates from the 22nd intake. But he was not as popular as his friends. U Ye Htut, who served as the spokesman and information minister under the U Thein Sein’s government, was for a long time the best-known figure from the intake.
Other well-known individuals include retired Navy chief Admiral Thura Thet Swe, former Home Minister Lieutenant-General Kyaw Shwe, former Defense Minister Lieutenant-General Hla Min, Energy Minister U Zeya Aung and Lieutenant-General Yar Pyae, who leads the regime’s peace negotiation team.
Soe Win is known as an inscrutable and quiet man. But he is a silent killer. He is responsible for the ongoing violence against civilians and for the clearance operations against the Rohingya in 2017. The US-sanctioned officer does not seem to have any regrets about any of those atrocities.
“The deputy military chief has become even more active since the coup,” said a former military officer.
Soe Win was born in 1960. He joined the 22nd intake of the Defense Services Academy in 1976, and served in various positions including commander of Light Infantry Battalion 379 in Minbya in northern Rakhine from 1981 to 2001. He became a tactical commander at North-Western Command in 2003, the commander of the 10th Military Operations Command in 2005, and the commandant of the combat training school (Ba Htoo) in 2006. He was appointed the commander of Northern Command in 2008. In 2010, he was brought back to Naypyitaw as the chief of the Bureau of Special Operations and promoted to lieutenant general. He became the deputy military chief in March 2011.
Will Soe Win become military chief?
Min Aung Hlaing’s presidential dream is an open secret. If he were to take the presidency, he would only leave someone he can trust as the military chief. There is no one else except Soe Win. Though Lt-Gen Moe Myint Tun was previously widely tipped to be the next military chief, Min Aung Hlaing would not take Soe Win into the cabinet as vice president, a position that does not have any power, and leave the military to a young and inexperienced general.
The third-most powerful men, chief of general staff (Army, Navy and Air) General Maung Maung Aye and Defense Minister General Mya Tun Oo are from the 25th intake of the Defense Services Academy and neither is likely to become the military chief.
Soe Win has probably foreseen that the military chief position is waiting for him once Min Aung Hlaing steps down, and thus has no reason to want to purge Min Aung Hlaing.
Soe Win has kept a low profile and has made sure he does not appear to be ambitious.
In reality, he is a not only co-conspirator behind the coup and protector of Min Aung Hlaing, but also the key general overseeing the bloody military offensive against EAOs, PDFs and civilians in the country.
So, for those delusional people who have not already done so, it is time to discard any wishful thinking that Soe Win would stage a coup against Min Aung Hlaing, let alone hand power back to the ousted NLD government.