Who’s Who in Myanmar’s Coup

Brief profiles of the four major players in the Myanmar’s military’s coup d’état.

Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, has been Myanmar’s civilian leader since March 2016 after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won 2015 elections by a landslide. Prohibited by a military-drafted constitution from becoming president because her two sons are foreign nationals, she was installed in the custom-made position of state counselor.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San, and was two years old when he was assassinated. After decades living abroad, she was thrust into politics when her return home coincided with a pro-democracy uprising in 1988. She subsequently led the NLD to a landslide win in 1990 elections, only to have the military nullify the results and put her under house arrest for 15 years between 1989 and 2010.

After becoming state counselor in 2016, lawmakers from her party proposed democratic changes to the 2008 constitution, written by a former military government, but were met with resistance by military MPs who control a quarter of the seat of parliament and can veto constitutional changes that threaten their political power.

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Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi waits for the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping before a bilateral meeting at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, Jan. 18, 2020. Credit: AFP

Once considered a “democracy icon” by the international community, Aung San Suu Kyi earned scorn and condemnation for her refusal to denounce a violent military-led crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in 2017. Though the campaign of terror left thousands dead and forced more than 740,000 others to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, she defended the military’s actions as a necessary counterinsurgency against Muslim militants who carried out deadly attacks on police outposts.

The actions against the Rohingya brought genocide-related charges against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the U.N. court which settles disputes between nations, and an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity by the military at the International Criminal Court, a separate court that tries individuals.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who led Myanmar’s defense at an ICJ hearing in December 2019, stuck firmly to her defense of the military for the violence meted out against the Rohingya, which included killings, mass rape, torture, and village burnings. She asked the ICJ to drop the case and rejected U.N. and other international evidence out of hand.

European organizations revoked Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom awards, while the U.S. Holocaust Museum rescinded a prestigious human rights award. There were even calls to cancel the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991. But Aung San Suu Kyi remains hugely popular inside Myanmar, and was key to her party securing another landslide victory in November 2020 elections.

On Feb. 1, she and others in her political circle, including President Win Myint, arrested by the military as it launched a coup.

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Win Myint, speaker of the lower house of Myanmar's parliament, leaves after the new lower house parliamentary session in Naypyidaw on Feb. 1, 2016. Credit: AFP

Win Myint, 69, became president in March 2018, a week after the resignation of his predecessor Htin Kyaw over health concerns, and he held the position until his forced removal from office in the Feb. 1 military coup.

Before parliament elected him as president, Win Myint has served as speaker in the lower house since 2012. He was appointed a vice president prior to his elevation in a sign that he had been tipped for the presidency.

The close aide and loyalist of Aung San Suu Kyi studied geology in Yangon and later became a High Court senior attorney in 1981 and a lawyer of Myanmar’s Supreme Court. Four years later he became a High Court advocate.

He was part of a democracy uprising in 1988 and was briefly jailed by the military junta. After he was freed from prison, Win Myint won a parliamentary seat in Ayeyarwady region’s Danubyu township in the 1990 elections — the first multiparty elections since 1960. The elections were swept by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, but the military junta refused to recognize the results and effectively ruled until 2011.

As the country began democratic reforms, Win Myint a lower house seat representing Ayeyarwady region’s Pathein constituency in 2012 by-elections and later became secretary of parliament’s rule of law committee. He was elected as a lower house lawmaker representing Yangon’s Tamwe township in general elections in 2015. A year later, he became speaker of the lower house, a position he held until 2018.

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Myanmar's military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing arrives for a ceremony marking the 71th anniversary of Martyrs' Day in Yangon, July 19, 2018. Credit: AFP

Min Aung Hlaing, 64, rose steadily through the ranks of the country’s powerful armed forces to become the commander-in-chief in 2011, just as Myanmar began its democratic transition after decades of harsh military rule and international isolation.

He studied law at Yangon University in 1972-1974 before entering the Defense Services Academy, a training ground for future officers for all three branches of Myanmar military, and rose steadily through the ranks.

When Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2016, the reserved senior general became more involved in politics under the civilian-led government, posting photos, statements, and his meetings with foreign dignitaries on Facebook. He gained hundreds of thousands of followers until his social media account was removed following the army’s brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in 2017.

In 2019, the United States imposed sanctions on Min Aung Hlaing and three other military officers for the violence against the Rohingya, which left thousands dead and drove 740,000 other across the border and into Bangladesh. U.N. investigators said the crackdown was carried out with “genocidal intent.”

Under Min Aung Hlaing’s command, the military has also clung firmly to its political influence. During Aung San Suu Kyi’s first five-year term, the military rejected moves by the ruling National League for Democracy to amend the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which grants military lawmakers a quarter of parliamentary so they have veto power over changes to the charter. The constitution also bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Despite the state counselor’s defense of the military over the genocide allegations, tensions between Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing have only intensified in the past two years and came to a head after the government-appointed election commission rejected military claims of massive vote fraud in November 2020 elections that saw the military’s proxy party slump to a humiliating defeat.

In the days before the military’s power-grab, Min Aung Hlaing had issued veiled threats of a coup, but he still caught the country and the international community by surprise on Feb. 1 when a new parliament was due to convene. With his coup, he upended a decade of democratic reform and deepened the pariah status of the armed forces he commands.

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Myanmar Vice President Myint Swe attends a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2016. Credit: AFP

Myint Swe, 69, is a former general who served for the past five years as first vice president after his nomination by military bloc in parliament. He was installed Feb. 1 as acting president after top figures in the NLD-led government – including President Win Myint -- were arrested and military seized power in the coup.

Giving a semblance of constitutionality to the military takeover, Myint Swe then formally transferred power to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, so the army chief has control over all branches of government for one year.

Myint Swe is an ethnic Mon ex-army lieutenant general who also served as acting president after the resignation of former president Htin Kyaw in March 2018. Before that, he served as chief minister of Yangon region from March 2011 to March 2016.

Like Min Aung Hlaing, Myint Swe is a graduate of the Defense Services Academy and rose through the ranks of the army. As a brigadier general, he commanded a light infantry division in 1997. He served as commander of Myanmar’s Southeastern Command and also as a member of the of Myanmar’s former military junta.

He subsequently became commander of the Yangon Command and was promoted to major general. In that position, he had family members of former dictator Ne Win arrested in 2002 after an alleged coup conspiracy was uncovered, then oversaw a 2004 purge of the military intelligence faction of former prime minister Gen. Khin Nyunt, and put down the pro-democracy Saffron Revolution in 2007.

Myint Swe went on to serve as chief of military security affairs in 2004 and became chief of the Bureau of Special Operations–5 in 2006. He was criticized for his actions after Cyclone Nargis, a deadly tropical cyclone that hit Myanmar in May 2008 and was the worst natural disaster in the country on record. Myanmar’s military leaders came under heavy fire for initially resisting large-scale international aid to deal with the catastrophe.

Myint Swe is also known for his harsh handling of activists in the run-up to the flawed 2010 general elections, in which an NLD boycott resulted in a sweeping victory for the pro-military USDP party.


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