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General Who Took Power In Myanmar Coup May Aspire To Be President


Police in Myanmar have officially filed charges against the country's former civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. She is in detention two days after a military coup. Michael Sullivan has been following this story for us from Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Most analysts agree there were some election irregularities but not enough to constitute massive fraud. David Mathieson is a Yangon-based analyst reached in Thailand.

DAVID MATHIESON: This was all basically a concoction to stage a coup. They have no justification for the scale of electoral irregularities that they're claiming.

SULLIVAN: Moe Thuzar is with the Myanmar Studies Program at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

MOE THUZAR: The situation today currently is far from the kind of deterioration of law and order that they used to justify the military coup in 1988 and the communist insurgency demanding an overturning of parliamentary democracy in 1962.

SULLIVAN: But Myanmar's military had a great deal of power in the country even before the coup. The 2008 military-drafted constitution gave it control over the ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs and 25% of the seat's effective veto power in Parliament - David Mathieson.

MATHIESON: That was a pretty sweet deal. Like, why do you have to renegotiate that?

SULLIVAN: In a word, ambition, specifically that of the military's commander in chief, 64-year-old Min Aung Hlaing, who was facing mandatory retirement this summer. Mary Callahan is a Myanmar scholar at the University of Washington who's currently in Yangon. She's the author of "Making Enemies: War And State Building In Burma."

MARY CALLAHAN: I don't think it's unreasonable to think that he had political ambitions. But the problem is, under the 2008 constitution, there is no place for a 65-year-old former commander in chief to step up to other than the presidency.

SULLIVAN: And a coup with the promise of a new election the military might swing in his favor may have been inevitable given the fraught relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and the military, a military whose leader at one time didn't seem destined for the job.

CALLAHAN: It appears that it took him three attempts to get into the Defense Services Academy. And his classmates report that he was a pretty shy and reticent personality.

SULLIVAN: After a slow start, Min Aung Hlaing's career took off a decade ago while fighting ethnic insurgents in the north. And the outgoing dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, made him commander in chief not long after. Back then, during the so-called transition to democracy, he was even seen as a possible reformer by some Western military officials, Callahan says, up until the army offensive against the Muslim-minority Rohingya and allegations of genocide.

CALLAHAN: I don't think he ever intended to put the military under civilian control. But this was a kind of problem of interpretation that we've seen over and over and over since the transition began.

SULLIVAN: Now that he's in charge, Callahan says, it's unlikely that the Myanmar military support for him will waver.

CALLAHAN: The last 50 years has taught us that the Myanmar military does not split. The bottom line is that the very rigid, hierarchical chain of command is very unlikely to break.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "DUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.