Following his 1 February seizure of power in Naypyitaw, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing formed an 11-member junta called the State Administration Council (SAC). This article examines the biographical profiles of junta’s key military members, in an effort to better understand the regime.
On 1 February 2021, hours before the newly elected Union Assembly was to convene, Myanmar’s military seized power. Its forces detained President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and senior members of the government and of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Announcing a state of emergency, state media declared that executive, legislative, and judiciary powers were in the hands of Defence Services Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The formation of the State Administration Council (SAC) followed the next day. This junta, chaired by Min Aung Hlaing, became the country’s ruling body.
At the time of its formation, the SAC comprised 11 members — eight military officers and three civilians. Six of those officers held the top six posts in the Myanmar military’s or Tatmadaw’s hierarchy on 1 February; the remaining two were appointed to serve as the junta’s secretaries. In contrast to the precedents of the Revolutionary Council that took power in 1962 and the State Law and Order Restoration Council that took power in 1988, no officer appointed to the SAC at the time of its formation was serving as the commander of a Regional Military Command.
In the six weeks following its formation, additional civilians joined the SAC; and at the time of writing, it counts 17 members. The junta thus now includes more civilians than military officers. While power on the SAC surely remains in the hands of soldiers, its composition represents a further divergence from the precedent of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)/State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) junta, which ruled the country from 1988 to 2011 and was comprised exclusively of Tatmadaw officers during the entirety of its existence.
Soon after the formation of the SAC, Tin Aung San and Mya Htun Oo left their military posts to join the cabinet appointed by the junta. While remaining members of the SAC, these men now serve as Minister for Transport and Communications and as Minister for Defence, respectively. Vice Admiral Moe Aung has replaced Tin Aung San as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy. The latter officer, in fact, reached retirement age in 2020; Min Aung Hlaing authorized a one-year extension of his military service. Mya Htun Oo, an officer whose career trajectory resembles that of Min Aung Hlaing himself, had before his transfer to the cabinet appeared to trail only Soe Win in his chances of becoming the next Commander-in-Chief. His replacement as Joint Chief of Staff is Lieutenant General Maung Maung Aye.
The Tatmadaw and its leadership portray themselves as defenders and patrons of the country’s Buddhist establishment. This attitude has its roots in ethno-nationalism centred on Bamar Buddhist identity … It is likely that the current military leadership shares this ethno-nationalist outlook …
This article lays a foundation for understanding Myanmar’s new military regime through a preliminary survey of the personal and educational backgrounds, career trajectories, demographic characteristics, business interests and affiliations, and record of involvement in the country’s peace process of the military members of the SAC. It takes no position on whether this regime will last one year, two years or even longer. It is, however, grounded in a belief that understanding as thoroughly as possible both the composition of the regime and the shared experiences of its leading members is crucial to thinking about its likely internal dynamics. Notwithstanding the difficulty of access to reliable information, this article seeks to present baseline data on the military members of the SAC and to offer tentative analysis of those data.
Graduates of the Defence Services Academy (DSA) — the Tatmadaw’s elite institution for the formation of officers — dominate the junta. (See Table 2.) Seven of its eight military members are DSA graduates. Only Lieutenant-General Ye Win Oo, Joint Secretary of the SAC, is an Officer Training School (OTS) graduate — a member of the seventy-seventh intake of that school.
The senior members of the Tatmadaw hierarchy who now comprise the military members of the SAC come from a range of DSA cohorts; Min Aung Hlaing is a member of DSA intake number 19, while Lieutenant General Moe Myint Htun is a member of intake number 30. Only General Mya Htun Oo and Lieutenant General Aung Lin Dwe are both members of the same DSA intake, the academy’s twenty-fifth. Following the formation of the junta, the former officer was, as noted, transferred from the military to the cabinet to serve as Minister for Defence, replaced in the post of Joint Chief of Staff by another member of the same DSA intake.
The majority of the military members of the SAC are army officers. As that force is the largest and the most important of the Tatmadaw’s three branches, its officers traditionally hold the top positions in the armed forces. In fact, the Tatmadaw is in large part an army; Myanmar’s navy and air force play small roles in its activities. That each of the officers on the SAC, with the exceptions of Tin Aung San from the Navy and Maung Maung Kyaw from the Air Force, have army backgrounds is thus unsurprising.
The career trajectories of the officers on the SAC demonstrate a discernible pattern. After graduating from the Defense Services Academy, these officers typically served in light infantry divisions or battalions, rising through the ranks to posts as commanders of Regional Military Commands (RMCs). (See Table 3.) Difficulties in securing data make tracing the early careers of individual officers impossible here. But the take-off point into senior Tatmadaw leadership roles for the military members of the SAC appears to have been their promotion to the post of regional commander. They were then assigned back and forth every year or two among RMCs, the general staff office or military schools. Promotion to lead Bureaus of Special Operations (BSOs) followed. After completing their assignments as regional commanders and BSO chiefs, the officers rose to the top posts in the Tatmadaw.
As regional commanders, most officers who later rose to those top military posts served in ethnic frontier areas where insurgent groups are typically active. Counter-insurgent operations have been the principal activity of the Tatmadaw in the areas of responsibility of the RMCs in ethnic states. As performance in counter-insurgency typically serves as the basis for promotion in Myanmar’s armed forces, officers who have proven their abilities in overseeing such operations appear more likely to rise to top positions. There are, however, exceptions. Lieutenant General Moe Myint Htun’s service as regional commander was at the Naypyitaw Command, for example, and Lieutenant General Ye Win Oo headed the South Western Command, overseeing the Ayeyarwady Region.
After serving in one or two RMCs as commanders, these officers were typically promoted to posts as chiefs of BSOs. (See Table 4.) Three leading military members of the SAC — Soe Win, Mya Htun Oo and Moe Myint Htun — previously helmed BSO-6. The location of the bureau in Naypyitaw and its operational importance suggest that officers appointed to head BSO-6 had not only demonstrated to the Tatmadaw’s leadership their potential for promotion to even more senior posts but had also earned the trust of that leadership.
Between assignments at one RMC or another or before promotion to head BSOs, officers now serving on the SAC assumed positions in the general staff office or at military schools — military intelligence chief, chief of staff of the army, or DSA principal. (See Table 5.) The range of positions that they held gave them staff, command, and instructional experience.
Trajectories through these assignments and positions of responsibility led the military members of the SAC to the top military posts that they held at the time of the 1 February coup. For instance, after heading BSO-2, Min Aung Hlaing became Joint Chief of Staff of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the third-highest position in the military hierarchy, in 2010. He replaced Senior General Than Shwe as Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief in 2011. In the same year, Soe Win was promoted to Vice Commander-in-Chief from Chief of BSO-6. Following the same trajectory, Mya Htun Oo became Joint Chief of Staff in 2016 after his own stint leading BSO-6. Moe Myint Htun became the chief of BSO-6 and then of BSO-2 in 2019 while still serving as Chief of Staff of the Army.
Mya Htun Oo is also a former chief of Military Security Affairs. Ye Win Oo holds that post now. While Myanmar’s intelligence apparatus may have diminished in political influence since the downfall of General Khin Nyunt in 2004, officers with strong ties to that apparatus do have a clear and obvious presence among the military members of the SAC.
Myanmar Navy and Air Force personnel seem to have relatively straightforward career trajectories, perhaps because of their forces’ small scale and simple command structures. Data indicate that Tin Aung San and Maung Maung Kyaw commanded different naval headquarters and airbases before becoming Chief of Staff of the Navy and the Air Force, respectively, and then the Commanders-in-Chief of their services.
Locating information on the birthplaces of the SAC’s military members is difficult. An exception relates to Min Aung Hlaing, born in Dawei in the Tanintharyi Region — the southernmost part of the country. The military members of the SAC members are Buddhists, and all are apparently Bamars. In a country in which more than 70 per cent of the population are Bamar Buddhists, the Tatmadaw is highly Burmanized. Further, the SLORC/SPDC years saw the entrenchment of a practice whereby non-Bamar officers rarely, if ever, assumed top military positions.
The Tatmadaw and its leadership portray themselves as defenders and patrons of the country’s Buddhist establishment. This attitude has its roots in ethnonationalism centred on Bamar Buddhist identity, which has been deeply rooted in the country’s politics since the colonial era. It is likely that the current military leadership shares this ethnonationalist outlook while at the same time using Bamar Buddhist ethnonationalism as a tool to advance its political interests and to rally support from the populace.
ECONOMIC ROLES AND INTERESTS
The Tatmadaw wields economic influence through two military-owned conglomerates —Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). While the organization and revenues of these conglomerates remain opaque and removed from civilian oversight, understanding the role of the Tatmadaw in the country, its finances, or its efforts to provide welfare for its troops without reference to them is impossible. Taken together, the two conglomerates own at least 106 businesses and are closely associated with a further 27 businesses. They span sectors ranging from mining and other extractive industries to manufacturing, construction, tourism, banking and insurance. MEHL is one of the largest companies in Myanmar, paying the second-highest taxes of any entity in 2019.
Any effort to figure out what the SAC— like, in fact, the Tatmadaw more generally — is must take into account that seven of its military members hold positions in MEHL or the MEC. Min Aung Hlaing and Soe Win serve as the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of MEHL’s Patrons Group, which oversees the conglomerate’s board of directors. Mya Htun Oo, Tin Aung San, and Maung Maung Kyaw are also members of the group. SAC member Aung Lin Dwe is a MEHL director, while Moe Myint Htun is a director of both MEHL and the MEC.
While the matter is not a focus of this article, the families of the SAC’s military members also have considerable business stakes — spanning sectors including real estate, construction, entertainment, hotels and tourism, and telecommunications.
INVOLVEMENT IN THE PEACE PROCESS
In his first television address to the public after the 1 February coup, Min Aung Hlaing expressed the military’s interest in bringing a durable and sustainable peace to the country and in advancing Myanmar’s peace process on the basis of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the Thein Sein government and a number of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). He had, in fact, emphasized the importance of restarting talks with EAOs since November of last year, when he established the military’s permanent Peace Talks Committee a day after Myanmar’s national elections.
Among military members of the SAC, Min Aung Hlaing, Soe Win, and Aung Lin Dwe have the most noteworthy records of previous involvement in the peace process. The first two officers negotiated with EAOs starting in the early 2010s under the Thein Sein administration. Min Aung Hlaing served on the Union Peace Central Committee (UPCC), and Soe Win was a vice-chair of the Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC). Later, as Commander-in-Chief and Vice Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, the two officers were supportive of NCA. For his part, Aung Lin Dwe served on the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee during the NCA process and joined the Peace Talks Committee formed last November.
The SAC has abolished the NLD-led National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) and set up three committees to continue the peace process: the National Solidarity and Peace-making Central Committee (NSPCC), the National Solidarity and Peace-making Working Committee (NSPWC), and the National Unity and Peace Restoration Coordination Committee (NUPRCC).
How the previous involvement of Min Aung Hlaing and several of the other military members of the SAC in Myanmar’s peace process will shape their approach to achieving the “eternal peace” that the Senior General promised last year remains unknown. Asking whether the SAC views the new committees as means of reducing domestic pressure in the face of nationwide resistance to its coup or whether it is determined to prove that it can accomplish what a half-decade of NLD efforts could not is, nevertheless, a fair question.
The data on the military members of Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council make possible several tentative and preliminary observations.
The Tatmadaw wields economic influence through two military-owned conglomerates —Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). … They span sectors ranging from mining and other extractive industries to manufacturing, construction, tourism, banking and insurance.
Unsurprisingly, the roster of officers on the SAC reflects the character of the Tatmadaw. In appointing those officers to the junta, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing adhered strictly to the military hierarchy that was obtained at the time of his coup. The first six members of the SAC held the top six posts in the armed forces on 1 February, now ranked on the junta in the order of their positions in the military leadership. This pattern of appointments may reflect not only Min Aung Hlaing’s adherence to institutional norms but also his pragmatism or even caution. In the uncertain atmosphere immediately following the coup, securing and retaining the support of fellow senior officers by offering them seats on the new junta according to their standing in the armed forces removed a potential source of distraction and even risk. By the time of the coup, too, Min Aung Hlaing had served as Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services for a decade. The roster of senior officers in the Tatmadaw was, not least, a product of his preferences and decisions — reflective perhaps of patterns of loyalty about which the data on which this article draws make it impossible to say as much as one would like.
Min Aung Hlaing was due to retire from his position as Commander-in-Chief and from active military service on turning 65 in July 2021. While after seizing power, he quickly moved to postpone his retirement indefinitely, there is nevertheless reason to believe that he sought at the time of the SAC’s formation in February to send reassuring signals to members of the next generation of the Tatmadaw’s leadership. Reshuffles in recent years had seen the rise of officers such as Moe Myint Htun and Maung Maung Kyaw into the military’s higher echelons, in an apparent indication of both of the senior general’s intentions to oversee the generational transition in the Tatmadaw and of his personal ties to these officers. The noteworthy transfer of Mya Htun Oo from his senior military post to the cabinet may also reveal much about SAC and Tatmadaw dynamics and about the regime’s future. These important matters merit closer scrutiny than the present article is able to offer.
The military membership of the SAC reflects characteristics of the Tatmadaw in other ways. All of the officers on the junta are Buddhists and apparently Bamars. The majority of them have served in the army, the dominant military branch. Their career trajectories typify those of senior Tatmadaw officers, especially in that they have, in most cases, included important counter-insurgency roles in ethnic states. All but one of the officers on the SAC have records of close involvement with the military’s two sprawling conglomerates; their ties to Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited are particularly noteworthy.
These multi-stranded, shared ties lead to two observations. One concerns the need to view common experiences not only of ethnicity and religion, professional formation, counter-insurgency and political outlook but also of oversight of business interests as possible sources of SAC cohesion. The second observation concerns the value of understanding the SAC, like the Tatmadaw more generally, as an economic actor — perhaps at least as much as a military or political actor.
Five months after the 1 February coup, Min Aung Hlaing’s SAC regime may still be in its early days, seeking to assert and consolidate a credible level of control of the country that it may never achieve. The military officers who dominate the junta remain the same people who led the Tatmadaw before the coup. However, in the months ahead and perhaps beyond, and as already exemplified by the transfer of two officers on the SAC from senior military posts, dynamics between Min Aung Hlaing and his generals will play no small part in determining Myanmar’s future. Time will tell whether the unity and cohesion of the military members of the SAC, their fear of the consequences of failure and their willingness to play continuing roles in their Commander-in-Chief’s project will hold up when confronted both by internal tensions and stresses among members of the junta and by pressures from within and beyond Myanmar’s borders.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/97 published on 23 July 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.
Htet Myet Min Tun is an ASEAN Undergraduate Scholar at Yale-NUS College.
Moe Thuzar is Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Michael Montesano is Associate Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.