Brothers in arms: military chiefs cosy up

Brothers in arms: military chiefs cosy up

Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing has just received the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. (AP photo)
Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing has just received the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. (AP photo)

Amid international condemnation over the alleged ethnic cleansing by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, Thailand has become a target of criticism for not expressing its opposition to this with the Myanmar government.

On the contrary, the country has granted a royal decoration to Myanmar's army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

He is the first commander-in-chief of a foreign army who has been given a second royal decoration, the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, in honour of the support he has shown for the Thai military.

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

Other army chiefs of Thailand's allies have only been awarded a first royal decoration, known as the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand.

So why has Myanmar's army chief won such a prestigious accolade? The answer lies in his long tenure in the post along with his close relations with several Thai military leaders.

Both factors helped cement the Thai army's support for him to receive the award.

Other army chiefs from overseas have only received the first royal decoration because they have spent less time in the top job. By the time they were promoted to army chief most have been approaching retirement age.

But for Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, it is a different story. He has served as army since 2011. During his continued tenure of more than seven years, Thailand has had no fewer than five supreme commanders.

Additionally, he has maintained close ties with a number of key Thai defence figures.

In fact, Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing has spent years forging connections with Thai military commanders and routinely makes three or four trips to the country every year.

Meanwhile, Thai military leaders -- from commanders-in-chief of the army, navy and air force to supreme commanders -- have made frequent visits to Myanmar to meet him.

In 2012, when Gen Tanasak Patimapragorn was Thailand's supreme commander, the Myanmar army chief visited the country and built strong relationships with several military leaders including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who served as head of the army at the time.

Since then, whenever Myanmar's army chief has travelled to Thailand he has managed to meet both Gen Prayut and Gen Tanasak.

Because of the strong relations between the two armed forces and and the two countries, which have not engaged in any border skirmishes or conflict, Gen Tanasak proposed a first royal decoration for Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing on Feb 7, 2013 in his capacity as supreme commander.

Three years later on June 14, then-supreme commander Gen Surapong Suwanna-at proposed the second decoration be awarded to the Myanmar general.

It was bestowed on him on Aug 21 but he decided to come and collect it in person on Feb 16 of this year.

Speaking recently to the Bangkok Post about the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis, he said: "I will only say that I will do my best to take care of the problem."

"Furthermore, in Myanmar, there is no ethnic group called Rohingya. They are Bengalis who came from somewhere else. We will follow the law," he said.

"Now we are keeping in close contact with the Bangladeshi government [on the matter]," he added.

Current Supreme Commander Gen Thanchaiyan Srisuwan, who delivered the royal decoration to the Myanmar general last month, insisted that offering royal decorations to army chiefs of foreign countries is a long-held tradition of the Thai army.

The same holds true for other armed forces of Thailand's allies.

In addition to the award granted to the Myanmar general, Thailand has recently given Singapore's army chief, Major General Melvyn Ong, a first royal decoration, said Gen Thanchaiyan.

The army proposed a second royal decoration be given to Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing based on the strong relations and cooperation between the two armed forces.

The Rohingya crisis did not affect the decision because Thailand views this as an internal affair, he said.

"We just hope the crisis will be resolved," Gen Thanchaiyan said.

Myanmar's army chief concurred that good relations were paramount.

"I received the royal decoration because [Myanmar] is a good neighbour," said Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing. "We also have a similar culture and religion."

"The relationship between the two armed forces is quite good. This is [another reason] why I have received the royal decoration, and I am proud of it."

The two army chiefs have forged closer ties than ever previously recorded under the current regime, he said, adding "we are like brothers".

Another important factor that has help cemented the Myanmar's army chief star status in Thailand is that Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing is widely known as the "adopted son" of Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda.

For at least the last four years Gen Prem has been something of a father figure, he said, adding that he always visits the Thai elder statesman at his Si Sao Thewes residence whenever he is in the country.

During his recent visit from Feb 16-18 to receive the royal decoration, Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing again met his mentor.

"Being bestowed a royal decoration demonstrates that you are a good person. Please maintain your virtue and our strong friendship," Gen Prem reportedly told him.

The Privy Council president often refers to the Myanmar army chief as his "son" and himself as his "father".

"If you were in Thailand but failed to visit me, I would be very angry," he said goodnaturedly.

He said Gen Prem always walks him to his car to see him off -- another indication of their special bond.

"[Gen Prem] gives me much advice. Our relationship is something akin to that of a father and son, which is great and makes things much smoother. So I'm happy to be his [adopted son]", said Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

After the Myanmar army chief's recent visit to Thailand, Gen Thaichaiyan took good care of him and his family and organised an informal trip to Bangkok to meet the supreme patriarch.

Before that, Snr Gen Hlaing and his wife welcomed Gen Thanchaiyan and his spouse while they were travelling in the Myanmar capital Nay Pyi Taw.

In late 2014, the feted Thai general expressed his approval for a military coup as a means of solving the country's problems. He said he believes the army has an important role in maintaining peace and order.

Whatever incidents may cast a long shadow over their friendship, whether it be the bloodless coup or the Rohingya refugee crisis, bilateral military ties have rarely if ever looked so strong.

Wassana Nanuam

Senior news reporter

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

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