Myanmar military ruler defends coup as protests intensify

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing says the military will hold an election and hand over power to the winning party.

A protester holds a placard with an image of Myanmar military ruler Senior General Min Aung Hlaing [AP Photo]

Myanmar’s new military rulers have imposed a curfew in the country’s two biggest cities and banned gatherings of more than five people, as they seek to stamp out growing protests against last week’s military coup.

The decrees issued on Monday came as Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in a televised address to the nation, called on the public to prioritise facts and not feelings and repeated the unsubstantiated claim that there were irregularities in November’s election.

The military ruler’s remarks were his first since he led the coup against civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on February 1, in a move that has sparked widespread protests and triggered international condemnation.

The army has announced a one-year state of emergency and on Monday imposed new restrictions, including the banning of rallies and gatherings of more than five people, along with motorised processions. Martial law was also imposed in parts of Yangon and Mandalay and other townships in Myanmar, a country that spent decades under military rule after a 1962 coup.

Also on Monday, the military warned of action against protesters, saying there had been violations of the law and threats of force by groups “using the excuse of democracy and human rights”.

During protests in 1988 and 2007, the military used force to put down pro-democracy protests, leaving thousands dead.

“Action must be taken according to the law with effective steps against offences which disturb, prevent and destroy the state’s stability, public safety and the rule of law,” said a statement read by an announcer on state-run MRTV.

The generals previously justified their takeover on the grounds of election fraud, promising to hold new elections.

Min Aung Hlaing reiterated that position in his address on Monday, saying the military government would form a “true and disciplined democracy” different to previous eras of military rule. The general said his military government would hold new elections as promised in a year and hand over power to the winners, and explained its intended policies for COVID-19 control and the economy.

A police vehicle fires water cannon in an attempt to disperse protesters during a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, on Monday [AFP]

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won November’s poll by a landslide, improving on its performance in the 2015 election and leaving the military’s proxy party trailing.

Ronan Lee, author of Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide, told Al Jazeera that Min Aung Hlaing’s speech was “utterly tone deaf to the obvious frustration and anger that’s been demonstrated in the towns, cities and villages across Myanmar for the last week”.

“Hundreds of thousands if not millions of people have been protesting about the coup and Min Aung Hlaing’s response astoundingly seemed to blame the democratically elected government of not being appropriately committed to democracy as one cause for the coup,” Lee said.

“He then suggested that the economic environment for investment would be good under the military. This is during the week when multinational corporations are running away from Myanmar.”

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing addresses the nation on live television [Screenshot/Reuters TV]

Growing protests

Demonstrations against last week’s coup had intensified on Monday and spread to more towns and cities, with tens of thousands joining a third day of street protests to condemn the military’s actions including the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest during the previous military regime.

In the capital, Naypyidaw, where Myanmar’s top civilian leaders are believed to be held, videos posted on social media on Monday showed police firing brief bursts of water cannon to try and disperse peaceful protesters gathered on a highway.

Three lines of police in riot gear stood on the road as the crowd chanted anti-coup slogans and told police they should serve the people, not the military, according to media and a live feed of events.

Police placed a sign on the road saying that live ammunition could be used if demonstrators breached the third line of officers.

In Yangon, nurses, teachers, civil servants and monks joined anti-coup demonstrations. Some held signs denouncing the coup and calling for democracy, as others flew multicoloured Buddhist flags alongside red banners, the colour of the NLD.

Kyaw Zin Tun, an engineer protesting in Yangon, told the AFP news agency he was at the rally because he remembered the fear he felt growing up under the military rule during his childhood in the 1990s.

“In the last five years, under democracy government, our fears were removed. But now fear is back again with us, therefore, we have to throw out this military junta for the future of all of us,” the 29-year-old said.

Thousands gathered on Monday for the third day of protests against the coup staged by the military on  February 1 [Ye Aung Thu/AFP]

Thousands also marched in the southern city of Dawei and in the capital of far northern Kachin state, Myitkyina – the massive crowds reflecting a rejection of military rule by diverse ethnic groups, even those who have been critical of Aung San Suu Kyi and accused her government of neglecting minorities.

Monday’s demonstrations came a day after tens of thousands of people protested against the coup in cities and towns across the country, in the biggest show of public dissent since a 2007 revolt led by monks that was brutally suppressed by the military. A year later, the generals held a referendum on a newly drafted constitution, which made sure the military maintained considerable power but opened the door to a civilian government.

A quasi-civilian government took power in 2011, and four years later the NLD swept to victory at polls.

UN special session

Separately on Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Council said it would hold a special session on Myanmar on February 12, after the United Kingdom and European Union joined rights groups in calling for a meeting of the UN body.

Julian Braithwaite, the UK’s ambassador in Geneva, said the call was “in response to the state of emergency imposed in Myanmar, the arbitrary detention of democratically elected politicians and civil society by the military”, which he said had “grave implications for human rights in the country”.

“We must respond urgently to the plight of the people of Myanmar and the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation there,” he said.

People hold up placards as they join a rally to protest in Yangon [Stringer/Reuters]

Braithwaite said the backers of the special session call would inform other council members soon about the drafting of a resolution on the issue.

Amnesty International welcomed the decision, noting that at least 150 people had been detained since the coup on February 1 and that many human rights defenders had gone into hiding.

“It is critical that the international community uses all the tools at its disposal to respond to the Myanmar military’s assault on human rights,” Emerlynne Gil, the group’s deputy regional director for research said in a statement. “Myanmar’s military leadership includes perpetrators of crimes against international law, amd they cannot be allowed to terrorize the country unchecked.”

Gil stressed any measures taken by the Human Rights Council needed to be seen as complementary to – and not an alternative to – action in the UN Security Council.

Amnesty and other civil society groups are calling for sanctions on Min Aung Hlaing and other senior generals behind the brutal military crackdowns on the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, as well as a global arms embargo and Myanmar’s referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies