BANGKOK – The man installed by army leaders as Myanmar’s president after Monday's military coup is best known abroad for his role in the crackdown on 2007 pro-democracy protests and for his ties to still-powerful military leaders.
Myint Swe was the army-appointed vice president when he was named on Monday to take over after the military arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of her party.
Immediately after he was named president, Myint Swe handed power to the country’s top military commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
Under Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, the president can hand power to the military commander in cases of emergency. That is one of many ways the military is assured of keeping ultimate control of the country.
Min Aung Hliang, 64, has been commander of the armed forces since 2011 and is due to retire soon. That would clear the way for him to take a civilian leadership role if the junta holds elections in a year's time as promised. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party's humiliating loss in last November's elections would likely have precluded that. The military justified the coup by saying the government failed to address claims of election fraud.
“It seems there’s been the realization that Min Aung Hlaing’s retirement is coming and he expected to move into a senior role,” said Gerard McCarthy, a postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute. “The fact that the USDP couldn’t deliver that sparked a realization that the system itself isn’t designed to create the outcomes that they expected.”
The U.S. government in 2019 put Min Aung Hlaing on a blacklist on grounds of engaging in “serious human rights abuse" for leading army troops in security operations in Myanmar's northwestern Rakhine region.
International human rights investigators say the military conducted what amounted to ethnic cleansing operations that prompted some 700,000 members of the Rohingya minority to flee, burning people out of their homes and committing other atrocities. In 2017, Myint Swe led an investigation that denied such allegations, saying the military acted “lawfully."
In 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department froze Min Aung Hliang's U.S.-based assets and banned doing business with him and three other Myanmar military leaders. Earlier, it banned him from visiting the United States. Min Aung Hlaing also was among more than a dozen Myanmar officials removed from Facebook in 2018. His Twitter account also was closed.
Myint Swe, now elevated to president, formerly was among military leaders included in an earlier Treasury Department list of sanctioned Myanmar officials and business figures. That designation was removed in 2016 as the U.S. government sought to support the country's economic development after nearly a half decade of reforms.
Myint Swe, 69, is a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe, who stepped down to allow the transition to a quasi-civilian government beginning in 2011.
That transition eventually allowed Myanmar to escape the international sanctions that had isolated the regime for years, hindering foreign investment. It also enabled Myanmar’s leaders to counterbalance Chinese influence with support from other governments. But with the coup, Beijing may well end up with still more sway over the country’s economy.
Myint Swe is a former chief minister of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, and for years headed its regional military command. During the 2007 monk-led popular protests known internationally as the Saffron Revolution, he took charge of restoring order in Yangon after weeks of unrest in a crackdown that killed dozens of people. Hundreds were arrested.
Though he has not had a very high international profile, Myint Swe has played a key role in the military and politics. In 2002, he participated in the arrest of family members of former dictator Ne Win, Myanmar media reports say.
Myint Swe arrested former Gen. Khin Nyunt at Yangon Airport during the 2004 purge of the former prime minister and his supporters. Soon afterward, Myint Swe assumed command of the former military regime’s sprawling military intelligence apparatus.
Milko reported from Jakarta, Indonesia.