Army Picks Loyal Generals to Lead Key Ministries

By Aung Zaw 24 March 2016

Last year, former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s favorite grandson Nay Shwe Thway Aung proudly posted a picture of himself and a general sitting together on a domestic commercial flight; it was Lt-Gen Sein Win, Burma’s Defense Minister.

Sein Win and two other top officials, Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe and Lt-Gen Ye Aung, have been nominated by the military to serve in the new government. Sein Win became the country’s Defense Minister in August of last year and he will maintain the same ministerial position under Burma’s new government.

Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe, former leader of the Southwest Regional Command, will be heading the Ministry of Home Affairs. Lt-Gen Ye Aung, once a military judicial advocate, is to become the Border Affairs Minister.

In accordance with Burma’s 2008 Constitution, the military has reserved the right to nominate the leaders these three ministries, which are key to national security.

Ye Aung, a graduate of the Defense Services Academy’s 23rd intake, was seen sitting alongside Burma Army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing at a meeting last month between Aung San Suu Kyi and other military top brass. He is close to Min Aung Hlaing and, it is safe to say, loyal to him.

Sein Win graduated from Burma’s Officer’s Training School (OTS) 54th intake and then headed the newly created Air Defense Office under the Ministry of Defense in 2002, long before becoming a defense minister. He is known to be relatively ‘clean,’ as far as military men go, and those who have worked under him have expressed a deep respect for his leadership and simplistic lifestyle. In his capacity as Defense Minister, Sein Win also attended occasional regional meetings and might therefore be able to potentially relate to other Southeast Asian governments on relevant issues.

Also a graduate from the Defense Services Academy—intake number 22—Kyaw Swe served as a principal within the military institute and later became head of Military Affairs Security. Much of his time in the service took place in Irrawaddy Division, where many former generals—including ex-general Shwe Mann, now allied with National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Suu Kyi—reaped great fortunes through business ventures in the region.

When the deadly Cyclone Nargis slammed southern Burma, killing nearly 140,000 people, regional commander Kyaw Swe was stationed there. He is known to have close ties to Than Shwe’s family, and it was known that the Snr-Gen and other top leaders witnessed the rescue operations under his leadership—operations which were deeply criticized by international watch groups for a lack of transparency. Yet he was subsequently promoted to the defense ministry.

It is significant that Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing handpicked three generals to be in the new cabinet. Interestingly, these appointees have gained no notoriety as military hardliners in local and regional media, perhaps indicating that they represent a ‘safe’ choice made by the armed forces.

While it is still early to draw conclusions, some optimists suggest Min Aung Hlaing is hoping to see how the three generals are able to cooperate with an opposition-controlled administration. The three will also be sitting in the National Defense Security Council (NDSC), a powerful executive body which will have six army representatives and five from the NLD.

But there is one rotten fish in both the NDSC and alongside the NLD’s President-elect Htin Kyaw and Vice President-elect Henry Van Thio: Vice President Myint Swe, who is also the outgoing chief minister for Rangoon Division, and the military appointee for the leadership role.

Many insiders argue that Myint Swe’s presence in the executive trio is evidence that Than Shwe intervened and selected his protégé to serve in the new government, an act which would have been taken to protect Than Shwe family’s financial interests and future safety.

Myint Swe not only reportedly maintains regular contact with Than Shwe’s family, he also looks after his business empire and extensive property portfolio, suggesting that their relationship is not just one of loyalty but of maintaining security.

Known as a corrupt hardliner, Myint Swe has been involved in past political crackdowns on dissidents and several purges of key leaders in the previous regime. He is still on the American list of “Specially Designated Nationals” under the Treasury Department, barring him from travel to the US. But in a new government, he may still be Than Shwe’s safest choice.

Than Shwe is known to fear retribution; safety for his family will be a priority once a new NLD-dominated government comes to power. On one occasion, in a private conversation with Suu Kyi, it was reported that his grandson was interested to know how the Lady viewed the family’s business empire and their assets. The retired Snr-Gen also held a frank discussion about the country’s state of affairs with Suu Kyi during a meeting in December of 2015.

Although it cannot be confirmed, it is widely speculated that Min Aung Hlaing is not pleased to see Myint Swe in the role of the new vice president; now, both Than Shwe and Myint Swe are positioned above him in Burma’s military hierarchy.

It will be interesting to observe whether Min Aung Hlaing will reshuffle the Defense Ministry’s top generals in order to remove those who are still loyal to Than Shwe and Myint Swe. If that happens, Min Aung Hlaing will be preparing to tighten and consolidate his power base in the armed forces, and possibly to step into a more permanent political future.