No dictator calls himself a dictator. Myanmar’s coup maker and military chief Min Aung Hlaing is no exception. However, taken together, his actions, public behavior and what we have learned of his private life paint a portrait not just of an absolute dictator but of a truly nasty piece of work whose overconfidence, arrogance and narcissism may surpass even those of his predecessors, the dictators General Ne Win and Senior General Than Shwe.
A couple of months ago, one of my sources in Naypyitaw—the capital of Myanmar and the headquarters of the junta—told me that Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has stopped going to see his former boss, previous military regime leader Than Shwe, who handpicked him as his successor as commander-in-chief, the most powerful position in the country, when he officially relinquished power in 2011.
It is customary for incumbent and former senior generals to visit Than Shwe occasionally and pay their respects to him as their supremo. Among those who have routinely made the trek to his door are former general and president Thein Sein, other former generals and some current leading members of the military-formed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Until recently, Min Aung Hlaing, as commander-in-chief, was among them, adding to his duties the occasional unofficial briefing for the former junta boss on the country’s overall situation following his coup in February 2021.
Since the middle of last year, however, he has stopped meeting the former paramount leader, who oppressed Myanmar with his iron-fisted rule for 19 years.
It’s not inaccurate to say that Than Shwe, 89, is Min Aung Hlaing’s godfather or benefactor; after all he handed him the most powerful position in the country’s most powerful institution, the military. In other words, he made it possible for him to stage the coup, take control of the country and appoint himself as prime minister of his own military regime.
So why has Min Aung Hlaing stopped visiting Than Shwe?
My sources see it as a sign of overconfidence on Min Aung Hlaing’s part. Until recently, his regular visits to his reclusive former boss were largely out of courtesy, two sources confirmed. His decision to discontinue the visits seems another sign that he is convinced he can run the country alone.
It is definitely one characteristic of a dictator—seeing oneself as the ultimate ruler who calls all the shots.
My sources and some others with whom I shared this information see Min Aung Hlaing’s act as a kind of “defiance” of his former boss, who has himself already secured a place in history as one of the world’s most notorious dictators.
Perhaps, Min Aung Hlaing, 67, now sees his former boss as a person of fading relevance, living out his last days. Meanwhile, with his coup in February last year, he sees himself as a savior, doing for the military what previous generations of generals—including Than Shwe himself as well as Thein Sein, his former president—failed to do over the past decade: keep a firm grip on power and not let the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi take it away from them through elections.
Don’t get me wrong, though: There has been no political disagreement or anything like that between the former boss and the current coup leader.
Ex-generals backed coup
Before his coup on Feb. 1, 2021, Min Aung Hlaing reportedly visited Than Shwe and informed him that he was going to stage a coup against the elected Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD government.
Than Shwe didn’t stop him, but merely cautioned that, if he had made up his mind, he should take all possibilities into consideration before acting. This means Min Aung Hlaing had his former boss’s blessings for the takeover, which has so far seen more than 1,500 people killed and several thousand more arrested.
Two other top generals of Than Shwe’s regime, which staged a coup in 1988, also supported Min Aung Hlaing’s coup. Maung Aye, now 84, who was Than Shwe’s deputy and the vice senior-general in the previous military regime, even said it was a bit late and should have been done earlier, according to sources who have access to private information about the former generals.
The other one who supported the latest coup was the previous regime’s spy chief, General Khin Nyunt. Known as the “Prince of Evil,” the former Military Intelligence chief was responsible for cracking down on all regime opponents after the 1988 coup. In early December last year, the coup leader visited Khin Nyunt’s house in Yangon and photos of their meeting showed they had a cordial conversation.
Other former generals, including former president Thein Sein, who was seen as a “reformist” by the international community, tacitly supported the takeover.
Soe Thane, a former admiral and senior minister in U Thein Sein’s government, openly supported the coup in his book.
They all supported Min Aung Hlaing’s decision to remove the elected government of the NLD, which defeated their party, the USDP, every time the two sides competed in an election.
Anyone who watches state-run television regularly will be aware that Min Aung Hlaing behaves like a paramount leader convinced of his own omniscience. His more notable performances at meetings with ruling council members and government officials include lectures to university rectors on the importance of education. He said walking was the best and cheapest form of exercise when he met officials from the Ministry of Health. His long, rambling speeches at meetings remind many Myanmar people of the country’s former dictator Ne Win, who staged a coup in 1962. He didn’t hesitate to lecture lexicographers on the importance of correct Burmese spelling or medicine men on Myanmar traditional medicine.
Like other dictators, Min Aung Hlaing rarely takes advice, not even from his seniors like U Thein Sein or the current acting president, former general U Myint Swe. He also disregards the leadership of the USDP, which is backed by the generals. Everyone who has personally met him will tell you that he is not a listener.
All that the members of his military junta, which comprises 20 generals and politicians, do is listen to whatever Min Aung Hlaing says. The same goes for his entire cabinet. It’s pathetic to see them on state TV jotting down what he says at meetings like schoolboys and girls. No one dares to open their mouths to complain, no matter what nonsense their boss utters.
The sources said Min Aung Hlaing has a tendency to issue orders randomly, as they occur to him, without thinking about them or educating himself about the topic. To fuel his unrealistic ideas, there is a small circle of his admirers comprised of aging Buddhist monks and pro-military laymen and women. That’s why he comes up with unrealistic ideas like running electric buses and cars in Myanmar, which has long suffered from chronic blackouts.
Nastier than Thou
Of all the dictators Myanmar has endured so far, Min Aung Hlaing is unparalleled in terms of brutality and cruelty, exceeding even Ne Win and Than Shwe. That doesn’t mean his predecessors don’t have bloody hands. But when it comes to crushing the opposition, every Myanmar person living today can tell you that Min Aung Hlaing is more ruthless.
If his regime can’t find someone it suspects of opposing it, it will grab any member of that person’s family—even a child. Journalists who refuse to parrot the state’s falsehoods are on its target list. If you are an ousted NLD lawmaker or member who hasn’t signed a pledge not to oppose the junta, or who openly supports the shadow National Unity Government and resistance movement—not to mention gets involved with it—your properties are at risk of being confiscated even if you are lucky enough to avoid arrest.
According to data compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an advocacy group, at least 267 houses and other properties owned by individuals had been seized by the junta as of Jan. 20, with nearly half of those belonging to NLD lawmakers and members.
That is just the tip of the iceberg of his ruthlessness. There are plenty of peasants in the anti-regime stronghold of Sagaing Region in upper Myanmar who could tell you about how their lives have been shattered after their family homes were destroyed in the regime’s indiscriminate airstrikes.
Despite his callousness, however, Min Aung Hlaing still hasn’t established full control of the country despite more than a year having elapsed since the coup. His supposedly formidable army has proved inept against a more lightly armed but highly motivated opponent. Having failed to win a quick victory, he is trying to sow panic among the people by any means.
Dictators come and finally go. But the question now is how long Min Aung Hlaing will be able to cling to power and to what extent the people of Myanmar will have to keep suffering at the hands of the most brutal dictator they have ever seen. The fall of a dictator like Min Aung Hlaing can only mean salvation for the country and its entire population.
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