Myanmar’s internationally reviled military chief, widely accused of commanding “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes” against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, has evidently now discovered religious tolerance.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, and several of his deputies made a rare, if not unprecedented, late August visit to a Muslim mosque in the town of Pyinmana, close to the national capital of Naypyitaw.

Two weeks later, in what some see as a sort of public relations roadshow, the military chief visited the Joon Mosque in the central city of Mandalay. Then, on September 17, in the commercial capital Yangon, he visited the Muslim Free Hospital, a local clinic established in 1937 that despite its name is actually a multicultural charity.

As is customary for religious shrine visits in Myanmar and elsewhere, Min Aung Hlaing made donations of rice, oil, salt, peas and cash to the mosques, offerings that were earmarked as given by himself, his family and his deputies’ families.

Less familiar, the military chief also offered up messages of tolerance, inclusion and unity to his Muslim audiences, noting at one stop that all Myanmar citizens are “living in the same land, drinking from the same source and living under the same roof.”

That’s, of course, unless you’re among the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya forcibly driven out of the country in 2017 by his military’s “area clearance” operations in Rakhine state, and are now languishing in abysmal refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.

Those abusive operations drove some 700,000 Rohingyas across the border and are the root of the “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” accusations, lodged not least by the United Nations, against Min Aung Hlaing and his top commanders.

Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (R) shakes hands with Muslim officials during a visit at the Muslim Free Hospital and Medical Relief Society in Yangon, September 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

But in a country long riven with religious and ethnic tensions, paroxysms of violence and institutionalized systems of discrimination that favor the Bamar Buddhist majority over minorities, the military leader’s mosque visits were in some sense groundbreaking.

Min Aung Hlaing’s goodwill tour has not been confined to Muslim communities, but has also involved visits and donations to Hindu, Christian and Buddhist sites. In all the high-profile visits, the public messaging has been overt and the offerings optics-driven.

While the mosque visits have surprised and bewildered many in-country observers, there are arguably three possible reasons for Min Aung Hlaing’s apparent change of heart.

The first, and perhaps foremost, is public image. The Tatmadaw has taken a battering in the international arena over its alleged complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Rakhine state since 2017.

Min Aung Hlaing has been branded a “war criminal” and worse, with his “wanted” posters distributed globally by campaigners at rights lobby group Amnesty International.

He and his military have fared better domestically, where propaganda outlets have sparked nationalistic fires under the Rohingya as illegal migrants. While reviled by many intellectuals, writers and progressive nongovernmental organization activists, the Tatmadaw is a deeply entrenched institution in the country’s ethnic Bamar heartland.

The People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), a well-respected elections education organization in Myanmar, released their “Citizen’s Political Preferences for 2020” in June. It showed that 44% of people nationwide had trust in the military, while 22% did not (30% said they didn’t know).

Compare this to ethnic armed organizations, which had only 21% confidence and a telling 41% respondents indicating that they don’t know, likely out of fears of responding honestly to the survey.

Pro-Tatmadaw rallies over the last few years have been largely rent-a-crowd affairs that fuse genuine sentiment of support from veterans, families of serving military members and other nationalists – all of which is not only natural but legitimate expression that shouldn’t be discounted – with people paid in cash or biriyani (a popular South Asian rice dish) to attend.

A woman at a rally of Myanmar nationalists to show support for government and military actions against the Rohingya and to condemn the insurgent attacks in Rakhine state in Yangon on September 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Stringer
A woman at a rally of Myanmar nationalists to show support for government and military actions against the Rohingya, September 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Buffoonish ultra-nationalists such as the former military officer and now tabloid editor ‘Bullet’ Hla Swe, or the notoriously theatrical racist monk U Wirathu, once branded by international media as the “face of Buddhist terror” are often guest speakers at the rallies to whip the crowd into a xenophobic frenzy.

However, both the former officer and the monk are now underground, in hiding from official hate speech and other security charges laid by the elected civilian government.

As such, some now speculate that Min Aung Hlaing has shifted course in a bid to reassure religious minority communities that he is a source of stability, rather than instigator of uncertainty and fear.

Second, some speculate the military chief’s course shift reflects his personal political ambitions as the country gears up for 2020 general elections. It has long been speculated that Min Aung Hlaing has presidential aspirations.

At the moment, however, this seems a less likely motivation. Why, analysts ask, would a top brass soldier who now holds a de facto monopoly on power seek election and possibly serve out his last days as a back-bencher or mere committee member?

Min Aung Hlaing may well have to retire soon, as the armed forces’ mandatory retirement age is 60, which was extended in 2016 for him and his deputy Vice-Senior General Soe Win.

Playing nice with Muslims isn’t exactly a vote-winner in Myanmar, either. It certainly was not in 2015, when no political parties opted to field even a single Muslim candidate.

But Min Aung Hlaing’s shift towards inclusive language could serve as acknowledgement of the diminished voice and power of Buddhist ultra-nationalist movements and networks traditionally aligned with his Tatmadaw.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government has taken measures to curtail the activities of Buddhist nationalist groups and networks the military-aligned Union Solidarity Development Party no doubt aimed to leverage into votes at the 2020 polls.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar Commander In-Chief (L) and National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) shake hands after their meeting in Naypyidaw in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Phyo Hein Kyaw
Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar Commander In-Chief (L) and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Phyo Hein Kyaw

In 2017, religious authorities banned the Myanmar Patriotic Monks Network, known as Ma Ba Tha and renowned for its anti-Muslim rhetoric, and ordered all its signs taken down across the country. Religious authorities repeated the order again in 2018.

The group has since changed its name to the Buddha Dhamma Parahita (social work) Foundation. At its annual conference in June, the Tatmadaw’s Yangon Regional Commander donated 30 million kyat (US$20,000) to the organization.

Tatmadaw spokesperson, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, displayed little of Min Aung Hlaing’s conflict sensitivity evident in recent weeks when he told the Myanmar media, “The Tatmadaw will make donations to organizations which it thinks are necessary for our religion.”

The organization has railed against the NLD and Suu Kyi in particular, castigating the state counsellor for visiting a “male-only” section of a famous Buddhist temple: the abbot of the temple disputes the Ma Ba Tha’s version of events, retorting that Suu Kyi had free access.

Military-NLD tensions center on more substantive issues than pandering to extremists such as the Ma Ba Tha, with the two sides holding hotly opposed views on issues as different as the economy, constitutional change and positioning ahead of the 2020 elections.

The final statement of the Ma Ba Tha’s annual meeting sharply criticized the NLD government for watering down various laws related to citizenship and security, evoking the labored specter of Muslims swamping the nation, an old script but one that resonates with Buddhist ultra-nationalists.

The statement included reference to parliament’s upper house’s recent approval of a child rights bill which includes allowances for giving birth certificates to any child born in the country. This, ultra-nationalists screech, would mean legitimizing illegal immigrants’, spelled Rohingya, children born in the country.

“This is essentially encouraging genocide of the nation, which is much more frightening than warfare. On behalf of Buddhist monks and people, the organization strongly condemns the bill,” the Ma Ba Tha statement said. It also accused the NLD government of damaging national security in Rakhine state.

Rohingya refugees shout slogans at a protest against a disputed repatriation program at the Unchiprang refugee camp near Teknaf on November 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Dibyangshu Sarkar

“[The] current government has revoked overnight guest registration law, surveillance law and Emergency Provisions law, which has destroyed the proverbial fence of the nation, and allowed illegal Bengalis to come into the country. On behalf of Buddhist monks and people, the organization strongly condemns the actions of the government.”

That fence of the nation, or the “Western Gate” as some nationalists call it, is the Rakhine state border with Bangladesh.

The third, and highly likely, possible reason for Min Aung Hlaing’s shift is a belated response to rising international calls for accountability for the Rohingya crisis, expected to come to a head at the United Nations General Assembly underway in New York.

The UN’s two-year long Independent Fact Finding Mission (FFM) has released its final reports, representing a major update on abuses committed throughout Myanmar over the past year, the Tatmadaw’s business links, and its widespread use of sexual violence in conflict.

The FFM’s business report, a combination of glaring errors, outdated research and spurious conclusions, has nonetheless rattled both the Myanmar business community and military business circles.

The imposition of United States’ travel bans on Min Aung Hlaing and several of his deputies in July were also symbolic sting to the commander’s reputation.

He has never been a frequent visitor to the US, preferring China and Russia, but it did, and was probably intended to, tarnish the dignity of his office and institution.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, will also release her latest report, with her statements this week highlighting the need for accountability and calling out ongoing abuses throughout Myanmar.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Situation in Myanmar Yanghee Lee speaks during a news conference in Yangon, Myanmar July 21, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Situation in Myanmar Yanghee Lee at a news conference in Yangon, July 21, 2017. Photo: Pool

The government’s refusal to grant her travel permission has not dimmed her principled critique of the abysmal human rights situation in the country.

The FFM will hand over to the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), which will continue to collect and preserve information for potential future prosecutions. The International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into the crime of “forced deportation” is also ongoing.

It is unclear if the military’s top brass and civilian government understand the gravity of these various accountability efforts, or could rank them in terms of importance or credibility.

There are certainly signs of confusion. Myanmar’s parliament was recently critical of the NLD government’s plans to sign the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a 1966 international treaty establishing basic political freedoms. Some MPs had apparently confused it with the ICC, while others believed signing the covenant would automatically grant Yanghee Lee a visa.

But taken together these efforts represent an unceasing campaign of calls for punishment of those directly responsible for the Rohingya crisis, and Min Aung Hhaing must be rattled by their persistence.

However, both the FFM and the Special Rapporteur were ineffectually retrograde in their denunciation of Suu Kyi and the chimera of her standing trial for crimes committed by a military over which she lacks command control.

Still, many of these international accountability measures fail to keep Min Aung Hlaing in the spotlight for the ultimate culpability he represents. Part of his recent religious show-boating may have been a rejoicing in that fact.

But if the Tatmadaw’s leadership, and the civilian government in particular, really wanted to make gestures towards religious minorities, they would pursue a long overdue reform of the countries 1982 Citizenship Law that discriminates against a range of religious and ethnic communities. It would also scrap the invidious imposition of the religious and ethnic moniker “Bengali” on Muslim ID cards.

It would work to stamp out discrimination of all forms in schools, the workplace and for receiving passports. It would take a proactive stance in extinguishing toxic hate-speech on social media, and stop turning off the internet in conflict areas.

Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the Myanmar armed forces, salutes during a ceremony to mark the 71st Armed Forces Day in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on March 27, 2016. Photo: AFP/Aung Htet
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at a ceremony to mark the 71st Armed Forces Day, Naypyidaw, March 27, 2016. Photo: AFP/Aung Htet

None of these corrective measures are in the offing, however. So is Min Aung Hlaing’s recent religious gesturing a “charm offensive”, as some commentators have suggested, or more likely a cynical exercise in “offensive charm”?

The warm feelings of calm his visits have evoked in some quarters will not easily erase the memories of the Tatmadaw either actively stoking, or acting as bystanders to, horrific violence against religious minorities, including but not confined to the Rohingya.

And while Min Aung Hlaing attempts a makeover, his religious rapprochement will do nothing to stop ongoing investigations into his alleged role in crimes against humanity, nor will it likely win votes should be run for high office in 2020. Nor is karma likely on his or his top generals side.

David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst