Is Myanmar Junta Leader's Presidential Dream About to Come True?

By Paw Htun 2 February 2022

In 2017, U Win Htein, a central executive committee member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), told the New York Times that military chief Min Aung Hlaing was eyeing the presidency after the 2020 general election.

There were two ways the military chief could take the job, said U Win Htein, who was present at all the meetings between NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing.

It was a well-informed guess. Since he moved to Naypyitaw in 2015, U Win Htein, a former military officer, made contact with former generals from the previous military regime. He served in a parliamentary commission with a former general, then speaker U Shwe Mann, and met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi once a week.

According to a former minister in U Thein Sein’s military-backed government, Min Aung Hlaing did not have any presidential ambitions until a power struggle erupted between U Thein Sein and U Shwe Mann within the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Min Aung Hlaing used to be close to U Shwe Mann, who was his predecessor as the chief of the military general staff. Before his appointment as commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing met U Shwe Mann once a week, according to sources.

As speaker, U Shwe Mann lived near the president’s residence. U Thein Sein’s right-hand man U Soe Thane and his associates were suspicious of these close ties, said the former minister. U Soe Thane reportedly often told his friends that U Shwe Mann could not become president.

The National Defense and Security Council meeting on Feb. 1, 2021, following the military coup.

U Soe Thane was apparently less happy about the relationship, especially after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament in 2012 and became close to U Shwe Mann.

“One [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] enjoys popular support and the other [Min Aung Hlaing] leads the armed forces. As U Shwe Mann had good ties with both, he could have become president. U Thein Sein and his allies did not want that,” said the former minister.

They began to woo Min Aung Hlaing in 2014, allowing him to oversee housing projects, including Dagon City. Construction contracts and import permits were awarded to Min Aung Hlaing’s son, Aung Pyae Sone, according to the former minister.

A retired general said U Thein Sein told Min Aung Hlaing and other generals that U Shwe Mann and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had agreed to seize generals’ assets if he became president.

U Thein Sein reportedly even promised Min Aung Hlaing the presidency for half of the five-year term if the USDP won the 2015 general election.

He reportedly told Min Aung Hlaing that he would amend the Civil Service Law to enable him to stay on as commander-in-chief until he reached 63, three years beyond the retirement age.

U Soe Thane later instructed then chairman of the Union Civil Service Board, U Kyaw Thu, to amend the law.

The proposal to extend the retirement age for civil servants to 63 was rejected by parliament in July 2015.

It is argued U Thein Sein’s power-play aroused Min Aung Hlaing’s political interests.

The USDP’s heavy defeat in 2015 meant U Thein Sein’s plan failed. He tried to dispute the election results but the Union Election Commission (UEC) chairman, retired lieutenant general Tin Aye, refused and ex-dictator Than Shwe intervened to ensure the NLD took office.

But Min Aung Hlaing’s dreams of the presidency did not die. And his influence on the USDP had grown as his officers resigned and joined the USDP ahead of the 2015 election.

He used USDP lawmakers, who served under him in the armed forces, to raise questions and spread messages in parliament.

The most significant example was U Thaung Aye, the Pyawbwe Township MP in the Lower House. While he was chief of the western command, U Thaung Aye confiscated land at Ngapali Beach in Rakhine State. He faced complaints but Min Aung Hlaing protected him and he remained loyal to Min Aung Hlaing in parliament.

Min Aung Hlaing also used other methods, such as allowing military medics to resign on condition they campaign for the USDP for three years. The move drew criticisms from some generals.

The USDP candidates for the 2020 general election were reportedly signed off by Min Aung Hlaing. The USDP general secretary allegedly had to regularly update Min Aung Hlaing on the party’s plans.

But the USDP lost again in 2020, shattering his dream. He needed the USDP to win 26 percent of seats to enable it to form a majority with the military-appointed lawmakers, who were handed 25 percent of seats under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

After being denied the presidency using the 2008 Constitution, Min Aung Hlaing asked U Thaung Aye to allege irregularities in the voting. He asked USDP leaders to allege electoral fraud and convinced his officers to support his planned coup.

Voter list errors are common under Myanmar’s electoral system. There were many voter list errors in 2015. Despite alleged voter list errors, the NLD government made sure an individual could not vote twice in the poll.

Min Aung Hlaing alleged that there were more than 10 million mistakes in voter lists but at a recent press conference, the new UEC appointed by Min Aung Hlaing said only 1,000 people allegedly voted twice.

The electoral fraud was an excuse used to stage the coup, which was Min Aung Hlaing’s plan B to seize the presidency.

The USDP and other pro-military parties are now pushing to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system with proportional representation (PR). It is thought that PR might enable the USDP to win 26 percent of the vote.

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