Commentary

What the Recent Military Shake-Ups Really Mean

By Aung Zaw 15 July 2019

Recent military reshuffling and further upcoming shakeups are related to the 2020 general elections in Myanmar, and the military will undergo more calculated reshuffling in the future—expectedly before the year is out.

We are likely to see lieutenant generals in their 60s that have fully served the last five years retire and regional commanders likely fill their places.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who assumed the commander-in-chief of the armed forces position in March 2011, has been grooming a potential successor to replace him, but who would that be? He is scheduled to serve in his current position until mid-2021, after receiving a five-year extension beyond the mandatory retirement age of 60 in 2016. Between now and then, however, anything can happen.

Last week’s military reshuffling highlighted two potential candidates who may become top commanders in the armed forces. Lt-Gen Moe Myint Tun and Lt-Gen Myo Zaw Thein—who have both quickly risen through the ranks, have served close to Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and his office in Naypyitaw and have accompanied him on overseas visits—took up senior positions.

Who are the potential candidates to succeed Min Aung Hlaing?

Lt-Gen. Moe Myint Tun, who was chief of staff (Army), became head of the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO)-6, based in Naypyitaw.

Interestingly, Lt-Gen Moe Myint Tun (Defense Service Academy, or DSA, intake 30) who is in his mid-50s, had served as a commander in Naypyitaw in the past, so he has been around there for years.

In fact, BSO-6 oversees none other than Naypyitaw, which means Lt-Gen Moe Myint Tun will continue working closely with top generals in the capital.

It is premature to say that he will be tapped to become Army commander-in-chief, but there is potential. He will be groomed and watched closely. Before achieving the top position, he could also be promoted to chief of general staff (Army, Navy and Air)—considered the third most powerful position under the command of Gen. Myat Tun Oo.

Lt-Gen Myo Zaw Thein, previously Yangon regional commander, is now adjutant general, a position that Myanmar President U Thein Sein also served in, in the War Office. Before that, President U Thein Sein served as Colonel General Staff Officer under former Snr-Gen Than Shwe, a position that gives him administrative and military management experience.

Lt-Gen Myo Zaw Thein is known to have Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s attention. He was the youngest BSO head when he led BSO-5, covering Yangon Region.

These rising stars still face much competition in their paths to being the next commander-in-chief, but they are worth keeping an eye on. Moe Myint Tun, for instance, is already in the commander-in-chief’s office, working with the military’s top brass.  

Top generals can still fill the shoes

Gen. Soe Win (DSA intake 22), in his early 60s and now serving as deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, can still fill Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s shoes if he leaves his post in 2021.

Even though some observers call his chances slim, Gen Myat Tun Oo (DSA intake 25), chief of general staff (Army, Navy and Air), is another potential candidate. A full general since August 2016, he is the third most powerful general in the armed forces now and a former rector at the DSA.

Whoever becomes the next military commander-in-chief will have to have major infantry experience and demonstrated achievements in commanding and leading armed forces, with a keen understanding of regional and international military affairs and the geopolitical complexities related to Myanmar.

In domestic politics, a new commander-in-chief will strictly follow military doctrine, remaining determined to stay in national politics and loyal to the 2008 Constitution. We can’t expect dramatic changes at the top level of Myanmar’s armed forces; any changes will be well calculated for the power and stability of the institution and its role in national politics.

It is still early to say how junior of him a commander Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing will select. When Snr-Gen Than Shwe left his post, in 2011, he was in his late 70s and his replacement, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, was only 55.

Recent reshuffling and near-term military reorganizations are no doubt related to the upcoming election and ongoing domestic political issues in the post-election period. But it is doubtful these changes have anything to do with the international community’s condemnations of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, including calls to prosecute him at the International Criminal Court for leading a genocide against the Rohingya people. Myanmar has rejected those accusations, and the country is not a party to the Rome Statute that established the Hague-based court.

The 2020 Election? If yes, when and how?

Conventional wisdom holds that the 2020 election will take place in November—as in 2015, when the National League for Democracy won by a landslide.

There’s been no official announcement yet on the upcoming election, but President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi officially announced they’ll run, and since then the country has been in election mode. Their June announcement to run surprised some observers, including military leaders.

The ruling NLD party is trying to amend the country’s constitution but facing stiff opposition from the military, including from the military-aligned and former ruling party the Union Solidarity Development Party. As a result there are rising tensions between the NLD and the military.

In an interview with Japanese news agency Asahi Shimbun in February, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said, “In principle, we agree with the idea of [a] constitutional amendment. But the important point is that no amendment should harm the essence of the Constitution.”

At Armed Forces Day this year, in March, Deputy Commander-in-Chief Vice Snr-Gen Soe Win, who attended on behalf of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, warned, “This can not only create difficulties but also endanger the tranquility of those who want to practice democratic norms systemically, because it is an action that breaks rules and regulations.”

But if the NLD pushes ahead, one can expect a nationwide referendum before the election. The country may see political confrontation and more instability, or even some other entirely unexpected outcome. Military leaders will prepare for political of ups and downs, including a possible showdown scenario in 2020. How Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and top leaders plan to weather this stormy political climate remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain: Myanmar’s top brass are preparing to bring a new generation of military leaders to top positions in anticipation of the current commander-in-chief’s eventual retirement, and some observers say we will see a clearer picture and a new line-up in 2020—perhaps after the election.

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