Staging a coup at the end of Min Aung Hlaing's term as army chief indicates a financial motive in addition to his desire hold onto political power
Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, National League for Democracy (NLD), won 83% of the parliamentary seats in the November 8, 2020 election.
This was the second general election in the country since the end of military rule in 2011. However, the Myanmar army has claimed the election was rigged.
The military says it has evidence of more than a million vote-rigging incidents. The army demanded that the voter list be submitted to the military-backed government-run Election Commission for verification.
In a recent statement, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing warned against repealing Myanmar's constitution. Then the tension escalated.
Last week, army tanks were deployed on the streets of the commercial area of Yangon, the capital Naypyitaw and other areas. Army supporters protested the election results.
Following all this, an army coup took place Monday morning.
Hlaing’s political power and economic interests are at stake as his retirement date fast approaches.
He will have to hand over power to the new army chief in June this year.
That is why Justice For Myanmar (JFM) thinks Hlaing has staged the coup with financial interests in mind.
JFM is a covert group of activists campaigning for justice and accountability for the people of Myanmar.
Since its launch on April 2020, the group has published a number of high-profile exposes related to the business dealings of high-ranking military and government officials in the country, in a campaign to publicly pressure the dismantling of the Myanmar military's business practices and systemic corruption.
According to JFM, Hlaing and his family have a lot to lose after having amassed personal wealth through the abuse of his public position as head of the military.
Hlaing’s role in military business
Hlaing has ultimate authority over Myanmar’s two military conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL).
He is the head of the Patron Group of MEHL and one of the biggest shareholders, overseeing business interests throughout Myanmar.
JFM mentioned in a feature story that these businesses were built through the systemic corruption of military dictatorship and the theft of public assets, which expanded under Hlaing’s leadership.
The activist group also mentioned that businesses Hlaing oversees include strategic assets outsourced to cronies and notorious international businesses through corrupt deals that he has presided over.
For instance, in 2016, the port was leased to crony conglomerate KT Group under a 50-year build-operate-transfer deal earning MEHL US$3 million per year, reviewable every 5 years, according to reporting from Myanmar Now.
In the mining sector, under Hlaing’s leadership, MEHL controls the largest number of jade and ruby licences in lucrative sites, some of which it has leased to crony conglomerate KBZ’s mining subsidiaries, disclosed in reporting to the Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
JFM detail many such financial corruptions in their report.
These corrupt deals net significant profits to Hlaing and cement his relationship with cronies, who are consequently beholden to him, in a system that continues to concentrate wealth within a tightly knit group of top generals and their associates.
These relationships are systemically corrupt, enabling Hlaing to extract rent from the military’s access to state assets, licences, and public procurement.
Hlaing’s family businesses
Hlaing has also abused his power to benefit his family, who have profited from their access to state resources and the military’s total impunity, according to JFM.
Aung Pyae Sone, Hlaing’s son, operates a number of known businesses.
In 2019, Sone came under public scrutiny for his ownership of Yangon Restaurant and Yangon Gallery in People’s Park. He was awarded an artificially low land lease from the Yangon regional government and reportedly serves alcohol in breach of a Yangon City Development Committee prohibition.
Sone’s wife, Myo Yadanar Htaik is also in business, including as a director of Nyein Chan Pyae Sone Manufacturing & Trading Company with her husband.
Until recently, she was a director of Apower, a subsidiary of crony company Aung Myin Thu Group, which has a real estate development in Mingaladon Township of Yangon.
Hlaing’s daughter, Khin Thiri Thet Mon, owns Seventh Sense, a media production business that makes big budget films and has exclusive contracts with Nay Toe and Wut Hmone Shwe Yi.
According to JFM, these family business interests are likely the tip of the iceberg.
As long as the military remains outside of democratic oversight and Hlaing can continue to abuse his power for personal gain, it is not possible to gauge the family’s true wealth and assets.
Who benefits from the coup?
While the senior general Hlaing staged a coup, it is important to examine his economic interests, as head of the military’s economic conglomerates and the business interests of his family.
His economic activities have been the subject of growing domestic and international criticism, causing reputational risk for the military’s international business partners like Kirin Holdings and Pan-Pacific.
Since 2019, scrutiny of Hlaing and the Myanmar military’s economic interests has increased, after the UN Fact-Finding Mission published a report that implicated military-owned businesses in genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Furthermore, Hlaing is at the centre of international efforts for accountability for the crime of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Could the coup be the commander in chief's last gasp attempt to evade accountability?