Min Aung Hlaing’s Mania for the Presidency Is Alive and Well—and May Soon Bear Fruit

By The Irrawaddy 6 January 2023

Myanmar military regime chief Min Aung Hlaing’s mania for the presidency is increasingly unchecked and, infuriatingly for the Myanmar people, grows more visible with each passing day.

In recent days, they have cringed at the sight of the coup leader dressed in presidential attire handing out decorations to those who have earned his favor, at commemorations of New Year and the country’s 75th Independence Day. Then, he attended a grand military review, putting on airs and posing as the country’s legitimate president.

In their eyes, Min Aung Hlaing has never been the country’s leader. Rather, they see him as merely a nasty impostor who grabbed power from the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government in a military takeover and began committing atrocities, including air strikes against civilians, killing more than 2,600 people so far for rejecting his rule.

Formally, Min Aung Hlaing has not yet been able to call himself Myanmar’s president—constitutionally, the holder of that position must be elected to it by the country’s parliament. In fact, he came to power via a coup that effectively abolished the legislature.

But he has long been, and remains, desperate to be the president. That’s why he staged a coup against the NLD despite party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s offer to him of the vice presidency, or a new post as chairman of the Military Commission.

Right after the coup, he moved straight into the Presidential Residence.

Then, he tried to deceive the world by appointing himself prime minister, preferring to be regarded as a civilian leader, rather than the head of a coup, while maintaining the military chief positon. Since then he has rarely been seen in uniform. Instead, he jumped into presidential attire to greet incoming diplomats in front of the Sihasana Palin, or Lion Throne, a symbol of Myanmar’s sovereignty, in imitation of the country’s previous presidents.

His mania for the presidency moved into high gear last year when he presided over a grand military review in February, following in the footsteps of ex-president Thein Sein, a former general. In short, Min Aung Hlaing has done almost everything that Myanmar monarchs and presidents traditionally do—from his reverence for white elephants and obsession with rubies, to building and consecrating pagodas and churning out honorary titles.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing (left) in January 2023, and military proxy president U Thein Sein (right) after his swearing-in ceremony in March 2011.

During the grand military reviews and ceremonies to confer titles, he has worn the Salwel, a sash that is one of the regalia of the Myanmar president, mimicking the pose of Thein Sein when the latter was sworn in as president at the Parliament in 2011.

Min Aung Hlaing plans to hold a general election in August—a must if he is to convene the Parliament and be elected president of Myanmar.

In his speeches to mark New Year and the 75th anniversary of Independence Day, Min Aung Hlaing therefore stressed that his regime is working hard to hold the election nationwide, ignoring the fact that his regime is losing ground in many parts of the country.

Min Aung Hlaing may however push ahead with his plan and order the Union Election Commission appointed by him to postpone the voting in some electorates, citing security reasons.

Taking no chances, he has also suppressed the National League for Democracy (NLD)—which he still sees as a threat, even after imprisoning its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—and is in the process of replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system with proportional representation to ensure there is no landslide victory for a single party.

Min Aung Hlaing also installed Khin Yi, who served as police chief under the previous regime and is known for his brutal crackdown on activists who protested against it, as chairman of the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The party has been making moves to solidify its position ahead of the planned poll.

With the NLD boycotting the election, the USDP is much more likely to win a majority in the Parliament. With 25 percent of seats constitutionally reserved for the military, Min Aung Hlaing’s dream seems set to become a reality, as USDP members and military appointees would vote for him to become president.

Meanwhile, Min Aung Hlaing is required under the constitution to hand power back to the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) at the end of this month. The election must be held within six months of that date. To maintain the military’s grip on power ahead of its plan for a so-called election in August, he would form a “transition council” under his leadership.

All of which guarantees that military rule will not really end in six months, or beyond the planned election, which he will use to legitimize his presidency by any means.