The Leaderboard: Min Aung Hlaing

Who is he?

Mr. Min Aung Hlaing has been commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces (tatmadaw) since 2011. A graduate of the elite Defense Services Academy outside the city of Mandalay in central Myanmar, Min Aung Hlaing over the years developed a reputation as a hardliner and rose quickly through the army ranks.

In 2002, he headed the tatmadaw regional command in the easternmost part of Shan state bordering China, Laos, and Thailand. In 2008, he became chief of the three regional army commands overseeing all of Shan state, an area almost a quarter the size of Myanmar. Earlier this year, Min Aung Hlaing was promoted to vice-senior general, the second highest rank in Myanmar’s military hierarchy.

Why is he in the news?

As commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing plays a key role in Myanmar’s transition from authoritarianism to parliamentary democracy. While opposition voices repeatedly call for amending the 2008 constitution, which grants the army 25 percent of seats in parliament and the army chief authority to assume power in times of national emergency, Min Aung Hlaing has defended the military’s role in national politics.

He has not, however, moved to block the reformist policies of President Thein Sein. In a March 27 speech during Myanmar Armed Forces Day, he told soldiers that it is their duty to both obey and protect the country’s constitution.

What can we expect from him?

Min Aung Hlaing remains a little-known figure to the outside world. There were early allegations that he was not a supporter of President Thein Sein’s reformist agenda, but those have largely died away. Min Aung Hlaing himself rejected the suggestion, saying, “While the county is marching towards democracy, the tatmadaw will support the functions of government.” Nevertheless, the army chief remains a wild card.

For the civilian government in Naypyidaw, securing his continued support will be critical to its ability to push ahead with political and economic reforms. For the United States, Min Aung Hlaing will be a key player in U.S. engagement on human rights issues and possible military-to-military cooperation down the road. That makes him arguably the most important, as well as the least understood, authority in Myanmar.

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