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Myanmar junta chief seen as under threat after military defeats

War-weary civilians boycott new year celebrations
Myanmar's junta chief military Min Aung Hlaing arrives to deliver a speech during a ceremony to mark the country's Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2024. Speculation is mounting that Min Aung Hlaing, is under threat following five months of battlefield losses to anti-regime forces.

Myanmar's junta chief military Min Aung Hlaing arrives to deliver a speech during a ceremony to mark the country's Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2024. Speculation is mounting that Min Aung Hlaing, is under threat following five months of battlefield losses to anti-regime forces. (Photo by AFP)

Published: April 15, 2024 06:58 AM GMT
Updated: April 15, 2024 07:18 AM GMT

Speculation is mounting that Myanmar’s military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, is under threat after five months of battlefield losses to anti-regime forces, including the surrender of Myawaddy on the Thai border last week.

Much of that scrutiny is emanating out of China, which has lost its overland route to the Indian Ocean — needed for its oil and gas pipeline — to three ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) along its borders and talk of a coup was further fueled by last week’s arrest of Myint Hlaing.

China has provided limited support for the junta since it ousted an elected government in early 2021, sparking a civil war but has also been increasingly upset by allegations that scam compounds, human trafficking and money laundering were flourishing under the military.

Myint Hlaing has apparently been charged with corruption tied to money laundering but his arrest has also led to rumors of an attempt to oust his chief, which has also implicated senior junta generals Lt. Gen. Nyo Saw and former Lt. Gen. Aung Soe.

The Irrawaddy quoted sources as saying Myint Hlaing, a military proxy for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had enjoyed a surge in popularity after lobbying the military to allow the USDP to bear arms and this had annoyed junta chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Myint Hlaing is a former minister in the Thein Sein government, which led Myanmar into a democracy in 2016. The BBC Burmese service also reported the Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar, Chan Hai has met with former leaders, including former dictator General Than Shwe.

“These types of reports are stoking rumours that Gen. Min Aung Hlaing could be ousted and given the losses endured by the military on the battlefield this should come as no surprise,” said a Western analyst with extensive experience in Myanmar.

Another analyst, who also declined to be named, said Myint Hlaing was suspected of being involved in a coup adding: “The internal upheaval within the regime is escalating.”

Observers added that Myanmar civilians were fed-up with the junta and the civil war, resulting in a weekend boycott of traditional new year celebrations, or Thingyan. Tun Myint, an academic with Carleton College in the United States, noted the boycott was significant.

“The empty audience at the opening day of this new year water festival at this stage should be taken seriously by diplomats or state officials of any country that the people of Burma are done with both the Myanmar military and its coup council,” he said.

Meanwhile, a People’s Defence Force (PDF) source said fighting had erupted near Shwe Kokko, about 20kms north of Myawaddy on the Moei River, after the military re-deployed about 500 troops and heavy weaponry initially sent to reinforce its Battalion 275 based in Myawaddy’s western outskirts.

Battalion 275 surrendered on April 11, before reinforcements could arrive, to the Karen National Union (KNU), one of some 20 EAOs battling the junta alongside the PDF which is the armed wing of the opposition National Unity Government.

Shwe Kokko is notorious hub for human trafficking, scam centres and illegal gambling and the PDF source said the column is led by 10 armored personnel carriers and included 22 trucks with about 20 soldiers in each “plus a lot of heavy armament” which was sent from Yangon.

“It looks like they are attempting to retake Myawaddy, which is what they really want, but they’ve been intercepted by troops from the KNU near Shwe Kokko. There’s fighting going on now around Shwe Kokko but the column hasn’t been able to break through,” she said.

Myawaddy shares the frontier with Mae Sot in Thailand and is the most important border city in Myanmar where more than a US$1.1 billion of trade passes through. Over the last five months the junta has lost control of nearly all its borders with Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh.

That has left the military with control over the centre of the country, home to ethnic Bamar, and the all important corridor linking Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, with the capital, Naypyidaw.

In a separate statement, the KNU urged direct talks with the Thai government to ensure border security and the flow of humanitarian aid to IDPs, “in order to establish peace and security for the people living on both sides of the Thailand Burma/Myanmar border.”

“The KNU is committed to establishing and maintaining cross-border security and stability. We are making the necessary preparations and arrangements for the continuity of rules-based cross-border activities in line with regional best practices,” it said.

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