Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/STR
Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Stringer

Will Senior General Min Aung Hlaing be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity, or instead be popularly elected on a nationalistic wave as Myanmar’s next president?

All bets are on for what the future holds for the commander-in-chief of the country’s highly criticized but politically powerful armed forces.

On one hand, rights groups believe the senior general is responsible for systematic human rights abuses, primarily in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, where an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims were forced by military “clearance operations” into neighboring Bangladesh beginning in late August last year.

The refugees brought with them horror stories of rape, murder and arson committed against them by Min Aung Hlaing’s Tatmadaw, as the military is known locally.

On the other hand, some political observers sense the nation’s top soldier has political ambitions, although he has not publicly announced any plans to run for office. Given de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy’s (NLD) poor performance since forming an elected government in March 2016, bringing decades of abusive military or military-backed rule to an end, Myanmar’s people may already be looking for a fresh alternative.

The military’s campaign against the Rohingya was not unwelcome among many in Myanmar, who see the Muslim minority group as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. What the United Nations and international rights groups saw as “ethnic cleansing” and even “genocide” appears locally to have bolstered Min Aung Hlaing’s image and popularity.

Neither scenario – referral to the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity or a rise to the presidency through elections – is necessarily on the cards. But international pressure is building for some sort of accountability for the Rohingya situation.

Amnesty International, a rights group, said in a June 27 report that it had gathered “extensive” and “credible” evidence to implicate Min Aung Hlaing and 12 other officials in “crimes against humanity” related to the military’s campaign against the Rohingya. The report, which claims the violence was “not the action of rogue soldiers or units” but rather a “highly orchestrated, systematic attack” calls for the situation to be referred to the ICC.

“Top military commanders, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, actually traveled to northern Rakhine State directly before or during the ethnic cleansing campaign, to oversee parts of the operation,” the Amnesty report says. “Senior military officials knew – or should have known – that crimes against humanity were being committed, yet failed to use their command authority to prevent, stop or punish those crimes, and even attempted to whitewash the overwhelming majority of them in the aftermath.”

On June 22, ICC judges asked Myanmar to reply by July 27 to a prosecution request that the court should exercise jurisdiction over the alleged crimes. Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the ICC in 1998 and therefore appears to be outside its jurisdiction. The government has said it will not formally respond to the request.

One possible way around this for ICC prosecutors relates to an application filed by representatives of victims now before the ICC, which asserts “as an essential legal element of the crime – crossing an international border – occurred in the territory of a State which is a party to the Rome Statute.”

Bangladesh ratified the Rome Statue in March 2010. If the application is accepted, the ICC could use Bangladesh as jurisdiction. But even if the case was brought before the ICC, it is unrealistic to believe that Min Aung Hlaing would appear in The Hague to answer the charges. If a guilty verdict were handed down in absentia, the only likely impact would be that the military commander would find it difficult to travel to certain ICC signatory countries.

At the same time, an ICC verdict and possibly even referral against Min Aung Hlaing and other top-ranking officers would likely revert Myanmar to the pariah status it had in the West before certain moves towards more openness were introduced in 2011 and 2012.

The European Union has already imposed sanctions on seven military security officers for their roles in the campaign against the Rohingya. Two have since been dismissed from the army, though the move was widely seen as scapegoating as it’s not possible they acted of their own accord.

If Min Aung Hlaing is still unlikely to be prosecuted at the ICC, then would he consider a run for the presidency? That’s not immediately clear considering he is much more powerful as commander-in-chief, and even as a retired high-ranking military officer, than he would be as president or state counselor, the new position equivalent to prime minister that was created for Suu Kyi after the NLD’s historic election victory in November 2015 to get around a constitutional provision barring her from becoming president.

Zoltan Barany, an American academic and expert on civil-military relations in Asia, stated in an article for the January issue of Journal for Democracy that “there has been no significant transfer of power [in Myanmar] from the generals to elected civilians, and there will be no such transfer unless and until the Tatmadaw wants it to happen.”

It’s not clear that it does. The army now appoints a quarter of the members of the Upper and Lower Houses of parliament, a bloc that consistently protects the military’s autonomous interests. Because more than three-quarters of all MPs are needed to amend the military-devised constitution, which was adopted after what most observers consider a fraudulent referendum in 2008, the military can block any motion to change the charter.

According to the constitution, the military can legally take over the government in the event of a “national crisis.” The military also appoints the heads of the country’s three most important ministries: defense, home and border affairs.

The home affairs ministry controls the police and its Special Branch, which is assuming the role of the former dreaded secret Directorate of the Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI), in effect what was a secret police force rather than an intelligence service. With the Special Branch’s rise, the military has assumed more direct control over the country’s domestic security apparatus.

With all that political, administrative and security power vested in military hands, there is no clear reason why Min Aung Hlaing would want to relinquish his top-ranking position to become president, a prestigious title which would make him a powerless figurehead based in the virtually empty capital of Naypyitaw.

As many observers believe that the government is in the driver’s seat, Suu Kyi has been criticized for the Rohingya crisis despite the fact she has no power over the military. That has simultaneously given the military insulation from taking sole blame for the atrocities. Suu Kyi may be accused of not speaking out against atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw, but that hardly makes her “complicit” in war crimes, as suggested by some activists who would like to see her referred to the ICC.

Min Aung Hlaing is without doubt the most powerful person in the country and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Born in Dawei in the Tanintharyi Region in 1956, he studied law at university level from 1972 to 1973 and was admitted at his third attempt to the elite Defense Services Academy in 1974.

Upon graduation in 1977, he was commissioned as second lieutenant and joined the regular army, from where he was rapidly promoted. In 2001, he became commander of the 44th Light Infantry Division and later head of the Western Command, with responsibility for the borders with India and Bangladesh. From 2005 to 2008, he served as commander of the Triangle Regional Command in eastern Shan state.

He rose to prominence and power when as chief of the Bureau of Special Operations (2) in 2009 he led an offensive against the insurgent Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in Kokang, a district in northeastern Shan state dominated by ethnic Chinese. He has been commander-in-chief since March 2011, replacing the old junta chief, Senior General Than Shwe.

As the military’s top soldier, he has deftly outmaneuvered potential rivals within the Tatmadaw by having them either sacked for corruption or for promoting officers lower in the hierarchy than those immediately beneath him. In that way, he has created an officer corps that is immensely loyal to him.

Min Aung Hlaing’s outlook on the region is harder to ascertain. He represented the Tatmadaw at negotiations to strengthen ties with China in November 2011, when he reportedly signed a bilateral defense agreement for closer cooperation in security matters along their common border. He also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on that occasion.

But it was not forgotten, at least not in Beijing, that his first foreign trip after becoming military chief was to China’s traditional enemy Vietnam. Myanmar and Vietnam share the same fear of their common, powerful northern neighbor, so it is reasonable to assume that Min Aung Hlaing had a lot to discuss with his Vietnamese hosts.

In fact, Naypyitaw insiders assert that Min Aung Hlaing and his fellow officers think that Suu Kyi is too close to the Chinese and easily manipulated by them.

It is too early to predict what will happen at the next election in 2020. There is no doubt that the NLD has lost much of its former popularity, especially in ethnic areas where people feel let down by Suu Kyi’s inability to understand their grievances, but also among urban intellectuals and veteran pro-democracy activists who have seen the high hopes they embraced in 2015 dashed by the NLD’s poor performance.

Political analysts believe that there is little to no chance that the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which formed a government after a widely criticized and allegedly rigged election in November 2010 and held office until the NLD took over in 2016, will win. But the USDP, and therefore the military, may aim to split the NLD’s 2015 voting base by making alliances with regional ethnic parties and promoting splinter parties in the Myanmar heartland, where the NLD still has a significant following.

What is more certain is that the military, which has ruled the country in different guises since 1962, will remain for the foreseeable future Myanmar’s most powerful institution. Min Aung Hlaing, who will turn 62 in July, may or may not retire before then. But given the past history of Myanmar military strongmen accused of rights and other abuses, he is unlikely to fade from the scene any time soon.

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