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Purge of Rohingya Lifts Popular Support for Myanmar’s Top General

The most powerful person in Myanmar now, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was little known outside the country’s military circles until the villages started burning.

Within just a few weeks in 2009, his forces drove tens of thousands of people out of two ethnic enclaves in eastern Myanmar — first the Shan, near the Thai border, then the Kokang, closer to China. Locals accused his soldiers of murder, rape and systematic arson.

Two years later, the general, who is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis this week, was promoted to commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in a country where the Constitution keeps the military in power despite the veneer of democratic elections.

The techniques that his forces used in 2009 have all been on display this year as the military has driven more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims out of Myanmar in a campaign the United States has declared to be ethnic cleansing.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who is the country’s de facto leader, has been harshly criticized for allowing the Rohingya’s expulsion. But under the Constitution, which was written by the military, she has no authority over the armed forces.

That is solely the province of General Min Aung Hlaing, 61.

His campaign against the Rohingya has further cemented his status, creating an air of crisis that has galvanized support both within the ranks and the country’s Buddhist majority.

“They are pinching themselves,” David Scott Mathieson, an analyst in Yangon, said about the military leadership. “They hit the jackpot. They are six years into the democracy era, and they are more popular than in decades.”

General Min Aung Hlaing has effectively sidelined Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose electoral landslide in 2015 blocked a potential path for him to become president of Myanmar, also known as Burma. She is barred in the Constitution from becoming president and heads the government under the title she created, “state counselor.”

She and the general rarely meet or speak to each other. And as his military offensive continues, it is deeply undermining Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s international standing.

“Aung San Suu Kyi and her government are a human shield for the military against international and domestic criticism,” said Mark Farmaner, director of the London-based Burma Campaign U.K.

General Min Aung Hlaing’s power includes appointing three key cabinet members, overseeing the police and border guards, and presiding over two large business conglomerates. He fills a quarter of Parliament’s seats, enough to block any constitutional amendment that would limit his authority.

The general makes occasional public appearances and often posts on social media about his high-level meetings. Mostly, though, he asserts his power quietly from behind closed doors. People who know him are reluctant to talk publicly about his character or their conversations. He declined to speak to The New York Times.

Interviews with more than 30 people, including current and former military officers, rights activists, analysts, diplomats and legal experts, paint a portrait of a thoughtful strategist who has used his power to promote a starkly nationalist agenda.

Now, many expect he will try in coming elections to again put a general in the presidency: himself.

“His plan is to become president in 2020,” said U Win Htein, an adviser to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and a leader in her party, the National League for Democracy.

Min Aung Hlaing grew up in central Rangoon, now Yangon, where his father was a construction ministry official.

After high school, the future general studied law. But his dream was to attend the Defense Services Academy, the surest route to success for a young man during a half-century of military rule. He passed the entrance exam on his third try, said his childhood friend, U Hla Oo, a writer who lives in Australia.

The future general was known for his smile, but his tendency to criticize and blame others won him few friends. His contemporaries gave him a nickname meaning cat feces, an especially vulgar epithet in Burmese, said three former military members, including Mr. Win Htein.

One fellow cadet recalled in a 2011 radio interview that the young Min Aung Hlaing liked to bully the newer students.

“We were so afraid of him,” recalled U Aung Lynn Htut, who became an intelligence officer and diplomat before defecting to the United States. “Whenever we walked by in front of him, he always loved to find fault. So we always tried our best to keep away from him.”

Min Aung Hlaing graduated in 1977 and became an infantry officer in a military whose existence had largely been defined by its wars against ethnic minorities. It waged a ruthless counterinsurgency strategy known as the “Four Cuts,” isolating rebels from civilian support by violently severing their access to food, money, intelligence and recruits.

“Burning villages is what they have done for years,” Mr. Mathieson said. “He would have risen in the ranks in the ’80s when this was happening all the time.”

Mr. Hla Oo wrote about the record of “my dear friend Min Aung Hlaing,” saying, “He truly is a battle-hardened warrior of brutal Burmese Army.”

One of his commanding officers, Mr. Hla Oo said, was a colonel named Than Shwe, who later became senior general and head of the ruling clique.

In early 2009, Min Aung Hlaing was named chief of the Bureau of Special Operations-2, overseeing northeastern Myanmar. In July and August that year, his troops targeted rebels in Shan State campaigns that drove nearly 50,000 people from their homes.

“This campaign has been carried out coldbloodedly and systematically,” Kham Harn Fah, director of the Shan Human Rights Foundation, said at the time. “The troops commandeered petrol to burn down the houses, and radioed repeatedly to their headquarters as the buildings went up in flames.”

The assault in the Kokang region of northern Shan State began after the military, known as the Tatmadaw, tried to arrest a popular Kokang leader, Pheung Kya-shin. Fighting erupted, dozens were killed and 37,000 refugees fled into China. Mr. Pheung accused soldiers of robbing, raping and killing civilians.

In March 2011, Senior Gen. Than Shwe bypassed older and more experienced generals and picked Min Aung Hlaing, then a young lieutenant general, as commander-in-chief.

His selection was part of the junta leader’s plan to restructure the government under the new Constitution. Then in his mid-70s, Than Shwe needed a trusted successor who would not hold him accountable in retirement for his brutal reign or his accumulation of personal wealth.

Than Shwe put two other top generals into civilian positions, including Thein Sein as president, and dissolved the junta in 2011.

In 2013, Min Aung Hlaing took on the title of senior general previously held by his mentor. It is unclear who promoted him.

Min Aung Hlaing was in line to succeed Thein Sein in the presidency, but that plan was foiled by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelming victory in 2015.

After the election, he decided to stay on past the mandatory retirement age of 60 for five more years, despite complaints that the move was improper.

As commander-in-chief, he has acted much like a head of state, traveling to meet foreign leaders and arms suppliers, and holding court in Naypyidaw, the capital, with ambassadors and visiting dignitaries.

“He pays attention to detail,” said U Min Zin, executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar, an independent center in Yangon that promotes democracy. “He is good at delegating; he presents himself as a statesman.”

On Twitter and Facebook, he extols fitness and discipline, complains of “bullying” by foreign organizations, and accuses the international media of “hiding the truth” about Rohingya refugees. Like other nationalists, he calls them “Bengalis” and insists they are illegal immigrants.

“There is exaggeration to say that the number of Bengalis fleeing to Bangladesh is very large,” he posted in English on Facebook after meeting with United States Ambassador Scot Marciel in October.

The two countries said last week that they had reached an “arrangement” on the possible repatriation of the Rohingya, but they gave few details beyond making a vague commitment to begin the process within two months’ time.

The military’s edge in Myanmar is not an accident. The generals spent more than 15 years drafting their Constitution, instituting a byzantine government structure with many built-in powers for the commander-in-chief.

Since Parliament selects the president, the commander-in-chief’s control of a quarter of the seats gives him a big head start in any future contest.

He has extensive authority over local civilian affairs through his control of the Ministry of Home Affairs and its General Administration Department. “That means day-to-day administration of the country is under the military,” said U Yan Myo Thein, an independent analyst in Yangon.

The general also oversees an extensive intelligence apparatus, unlike Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who at times seems poorly informed about events in the country.

And the military owns two of Myanmar’s largest conglomerates, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation.

Those secretive companies operate in many sectors, including jade mining, energy, banking, insurance, telecommunications, transportation, tourism and information technology, analysts say.

Historically, they have been an important source of wealth for the generals, said U Ye Myo Hein, executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, an independent policy center in Yangon.

“They have a vast economic empire,” he said. “He does not have to answer to Parliament or the civilian government. We have a long history of the business-military complex. It is very difficult to stop that.”

Most land in Myanmar is owned by the government, and the generals have a history of seizing desirable properties and handing them to favored companies, including their own. The commander-in-chief also has authority over many land-use decisions through the Ministry of Home Affairs.

“He controls everything that has to do with the land,” said U Myint Thwin, a lawyer who represents farmers trying to recover 20,000 acres outside Yangon that the military seized two decades ago. Twenty farmers were jailed for months in 2014 after they filed a lawsuit seeking the land’s return.

He said he and the farmers sent letters last year to General Min Aung Hlaing asking him to give back the land.

“The military people were calling the farmers and threatening them.” he said. “The military sent me a letter saying, ‘If you don’t withdraw the letter, we will sue you for defamation.’ ”

Some activists fear that the general will declare the abandoned Rohingya villages vacant and give the property to other ethnic groups, making it harder for the refugees to return.

In September, the general visited Maungdaw, a town in northern Rakhine State on the border with Bangladesh, and lamented in a speech that the Rohingya had been more successful in business than other ethnic groups.

He urged non-Rohingya who had fled the violence to return home and rebuild their communities.

“It’s necessary to have control of our region with our national races,” he said. “That is their rightful place.”

Source: New York Times

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