Min Aung Hlaing rose steadily through the ranks of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s powerful military, but as commander-in-chief for the past decade he also wielded significant political influence before the 1 February coup.
He successfully maintained the Tatmadaw’s power even as Myanmar transitioned to democracy, but received international condemnation and sanctions for his alleged role in the military’s attacks of ethnic minorities.
As Myanmar returns to military rule under his leadership, Min Aung Hlaing now looks set to extend his power and shape the country’s immediate future.
Rise to the top
The 64-year-old general has spent his entire career in the influential military, which he joined as a cadet.
A former law student at Yangon University, he entered the Defence Services Academy on his third attempt in 1974.
The relatively unassuming infantryman kept getting regular promotions and moved up the ladder, eventually becoming commander of the Bureau of Special Operations-2 in 2009.
In this role, he oversaw operations in north-eastern Myanmar, which led to tens of thousands of ethnic minority refugees fleeing the eastern Shan province and the Kokang region, along the Chinese border.
Despite allegations of murder, rape and arson against his troops, Min Aung Hlaing continued to rise and in August 2010 he became joint chief of staff.
Less than a year later, he was tapped for the military’s top post ahead of more senior generals, succeeding long-time leader Than Shwe as commander-in-chief in March 2011.
When Min Aung Hlaing became military chief, blogger and writer Hla Oo – who said they had known each other in childhood – described him as “a battle-hardened warrior of brutal Burmese Army”, but also called him a “serious scholar and gentleman”.
Political influence and ‘genocide’
Min Aung Hlaing began his tenure as military chief as Myanmar transitioned to democracy in 2011 after decades of military rule, but remained keen on maintaining the Tatmadaw’s power.
His political influence and social media presence increased as the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) led the government.
In 2016, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power, he seemingly adapted to the change by working and appearing at public events with her.
Despite the change, he ensured the Tatmadaw continued to hold 25% of parliamentary seats and crucial security-related cabinet portfolios, while resisting the NLD’s attempts to amend the constitution and limit military power.
In 2016 and 2017, the military intensified a crackdown on the Rohingya ethnic minority in the northern Rakhine state, leading to many Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar.
The military chief was condemned internationally for the alleged “genocide”, and in August 2018 the UN Human Rights Council said: “Myanmar’s top military generals, including Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, must be investigated and prosecuted for genocide in the north of Rakhine State, as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States.”
Following the council’s statement, Facebook deleted his account, along with those of other individuals and organisations who it said had “committed or enabled serious human rights abuses in the country”.
The US sanctioned him twice – in 2019 for his alleged role in “ethnic cleansing” and human rights violations, and in July 2020 the UK also imposed sanctions on him.
The November 2020 general election saw a landslide win for the NLD, according to official figures, but in subsequent months the Tatmadaw and military-backed USDP repeatedly disputed the results.
The USDP made allegations of widespread electoral fraud. Those claims were dismissed by the election commission ahead of a planned parliament session on 1 February to confirm the new government.
Speculation of a coup grew amid the stand-off between the government and the armed forces. On 27 January Min Aung Hlaing warned that “the constitution shall be abolished, if not followed”, citing example of previous military coups in 1962 and 1988.
His office seemingly reversed this stance by 30 January, saying that the media had misinterpreted military officials’ words about abolishing the constitution.
However, on the morning of 1 February, the Tatmadaw detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior leaders, and declared a year-long state of emergency.
Min Aung Hlaing assumed all state power for this period in his capacity as commander-in-chief, and immediately prioritised the alleged electoral irregularities.
A meeting of the National Defence and Security Council led by him said it would investigate the fraud claims and hold new elections, effectively invalidating the NLD’s win.
Min Aung Hlaing was originally due to step down as commander-in-chief after reaching the retirement age of 65 in July this year, but has now given himself at least another year in power – and potentially longer – with Myanmar’s apparent return to military rule.
As Myanmar faces an uncertain future with the state of emergency, he has cemented his power and taken charge of the country.
This report was compiled by BBC Monitoring