Two former confidantes of Myanmar’s Senior General have been convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison. Their oversight of economic portfolios, and failure to stabilise rising prices, suggest that they are also scapegoats for the regime’s policy failures.
Myanmar’s economic and political woes have been exacerbated by recent military skirmishes. The ouster of senior military officers in corruption cases also indicate there is more trouble beneath the surface. In late October, the Three Brotherhood Alliance of communal and regional people’s armies launched a set of coordinated attacks known as Operation 1027 on the Myanmar army. The armed offensive near the country’s border with China struck a serious blow to the Myanmar military’s assertions of control. Before the powerful rebels launched the attack, the State Administration Council (SAC) — Myanmar’s military regime — had seemingly been less busy with securing the border region than with reshuffling top leadership and purging two confidantes of SAC chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing for corruption. This purge of former favourites constitutes the regime’s biggest crackdown on corruption since the February 2021 coup.
On 10 October, Lieutenant-General Moe Myint Tun and his aide Brigadier-General Yan Naung Soe received prison sentences of “transportation for the term of 20 years” for “betrayal to the State treason violating the roadmap and objectives adopted by the State”. Until his arrest in September, Moe Myint Tun, once described as the successor to the current military chief, had been overseeing the SAC’s economic and financial policies. He chaired the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) as well as two other committees: the Central Trade Facilitation Committee, and the Foreign Exchange Supervisory Committee.
The regime had also, on November 11, sentenced another powerful general, Lieutenant-General Soe Htut, former home affairs minister, to a five-year-imprisonment for “exploiting his power during his tenure”. The two Lieutenant-generals were formerly Min Aung Hlaing’s most trusted deputies—to the point that he sent them to negotiate with ousted State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi before the coup.
Moe Myint Tun’s case is more critical to the SAC since he was the key implementer of the SAC’s economic policy, including the urgent stabilisation of rising commodity prices. Military and business sources have shared with the author that the regime placed the three basic commodities of rice, oil and cooking oil under state control after the coup.
Although Myanmar produces enough rice to feed its people, it has to import oil and cooking oil. For this reason, the Central Bank of Myanmar sells $600 million annually to well-connected businessmen to import cooking oil at a fixed official rate which is much lower than the market rate. But the regime is still struggling to keep commodity prices stable. Min Aung Hlaing reportedly instructed Lieutenant-General Ye Win Oo, chief of Myanmar’s military intelligence, to investigate the reasons for the price instability. Hundreds of fuel and cooking oil importers were arrested for interrogation, followed by the arrests of Moe Myint Tun and his aides.
While the actions against corruption were meant to show strength on the economic front, the political fallout has undermined SAC leadership.
A senior staff officer at the commander-in-chief’s office in Naypyidaw told the author, on condition of anonymity, that the SAC had questioned cooking oil importers on the price hikes, “although the government had already allowed them to exchange dollars at the official rate of 2,100 kyat. Then the corruption cases were found and action taken against the related officials,” He added that “in examining the case, we found that weaknesses in the import policy created corruption. This cannot be fixed by removing and replacing officials, but [requires] a policy review.”
Corruption is a convenient reason for removing problematic subordinates. Corruption has grown alongside crony capitalism particularly after Myanmar reintroduced a market economy following the 1988 coup. The country’s economy has been controlled by ruling generals and their business cronies. Top generals and their family members have benefited from and participated in such practices. US sanctions targeting Min Aung Hlaing’s son and daughter after the 2021 coup, stated that they had “directly benefitted from their father’s position and malign influence.”
Corruption is endemic but prosecution can be selective. Moe Myint Tun’s fall from grace highlights some underlying currents and tensions in Myanmar’s highest echelons. The SAC needed a scapegoat for its economic policy failures. The Senior General also needed a scapegoat to deflect queries and comments from military elders on the extent of his family’s participation in corrupt practices. Moe Myint Tun, had, as MIC Chair, approved the businesses of the Senior General’s children and their business associates. His complicity ultimately made him a pawn of the ruthless regime.
The purge of two former top leaders may have broader ramifications. Analysts with insider knowledge of the military have shared with the author that the recent sackings were due to “an economic predicament” triggered by exchange rate depreciation, and have observed that “the crackdown is now threatening the SAC power centre.” These observations reveal how the military reacts to perceived threats, whether economic or military, and how it demonstrates decisive action against public perception of its weakening control. While the actions against corruption were meant to show strength on the economic front, the political fallout has undermined SAC leadership, with Min Aung Hlaing’s position weakened and conditions portending more infighting to come.
Meanwhile, joint Chief of Staff (Army, Navy, Air Force) General Maung Maung Aye, Minister for Transport and Communication General Mya Tun Oo, and Minister for Home Affairs Lieutenant-General Yar Pyae, now fill the various positions vacated by the fallen favourites. Ye Win Oo, who is also joint secretary of the military council, makes frequent appearances beside the SAC head. It remains to be seen whether they will be players or pawns in Myanmar’s Game of Thrones, as Maung Maung Aye and Ye Win Oo seem to have created a faction of sorts already. The only certainty is the suspense of the Senior Generals’ subordinates, as their fortunes lie in his hands.
Wai Moe is a former Burmese political prisoner turned journalist. He was also a Visiting Fellow with the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.