Myanmar’s junta chief said Sunday that elections would be held and a state of emergency lifted by August 2023, extending the military’s initial timeline given when it deposed Aung San Suu Kyi six months ago.
The country has been in turmoil since the army ousted the civilian leader in February, launching a crackdown on dissent that has killed more than 900 people according to a local monitoring group.
A resurgent coronavirus wave has also amplified havoc, with many hospitals empty of pro-democracy medical staff, and the World Bank has forecast the economy will contract by up to 18 percent.
In a televised address junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said the military would “accomplish the provisions of the state of emergency by August 2023.”
“I pledge to hold multi-party elections,” he added.
The general’s announcement would place Myanmar in the military’s grip for nearly two and a half years – instead of the initial one-year timeline that the army announced days after the coup.
The State Administration Council – as the junta calls itself – announced in a separate statement that Min Aung Hlaing had been appointed prime minister of the “caretaker government.”
The army has justified its power grab by alleging massive fraud during 2020 elections won in a landslide by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
Last week it canceled the results of the polls, announcing it had uncovered more than 11 million instances of voter fraud.
Detained since February 1, Suu Kyi faces charges – including flouting coronavirus restrictions and illegally importing walkie-talkies – that could see her jailed for more than a decade.
International pressure, including sanctions targeting the military and army-linked businesses, has done little to knock the junta off course.
The 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has tried to negotiate with the regime – though critics say that the bloc lacks diplomatic clout and unity.
ASEAN leaders in April called for an “immediate cessation of violence” and a visit to Myanmar by a regional special envoy, an agreement that Min Aung Hlaing later walked back.
On Sunday, the general announced the selection of an ASEAN envoy – Thailand’s former deputy foreign minister Virasakdi Futrakul – and declared the junta “ready to work on ASEAN cooperation.”
Myanmar’s military has long had a close relationship with its Thai counterpart – which has a track record of being putsch-happy, staging more than a dozen coups in Thailand since 1932.
Across Myanmar Sunday – from the southern coastal city of Dawei to jade-producing town Hpakant – small groups of demonstrators protested to demand a return to democracy.
Protesters in the northern town of Kale held banners reading “strength for the revolution” while demonstrators set off flares at a march in the commercial capital Yangon.
But, six months since the generals ended a decade-long experiment with democracy, large-scale protests are no longer the norm due to violent crackdowns and mass arrests.
A deadly Covid-19 surge, which has left staff and volunteers working in crematoriums and cemeteries overwhelmed with bodies, is also limiting turnouts.
Pro-democracy medical workers – among the first to kick off a nationwide civil disobedience campaign joined by tens of thousands of government workers – now work underground to provide telemedicine consultations to the ill.
But the need is still great, with pleas for help resounding across social media and with residents waiting in long lines for oxygen tanks and medicine for virus-afflicted relatives.
“In the six months since the coup, the people of Myanmar have demonstrated remarkable courage and conviction in the face of widespread violence and now a devastating public health crisis,” said the US embassy in Myanmar on its official Facebook page Sunday.
“The United States remains firmly committed to supporting the people of Myanmar in their aspirations for a democratic, inclusive future of their own choosing.”
Timeline of turmoil
Myanmar’s military seized power on February 1, ousting the civilian government and arresting its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
More than 900 people have since been killed and thousands of others arrested during the violent suppression of mass protests against junta rule.
Here is a look back at the six months since the military brought Myanmar’s nascent democracy to a sudden end:
Soldiers detain Suu Kyi and her top allies during pre-dawn raids on February 1, in a coup that ends Myanmar’s decade-long experiment with democracy after half a century of military rule.
The generals claim fraud in the previous November’s elections, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide.
But their actions spark global condemnation, from Pope Francis to US President Joe Biden.
Resistance to the coup begins with people banging pots and pans — a practice traditionally associated with driving out evil spirits.
The junta tries to block social media platforms including Facebook, which is hugely popular in Myanmar. Nightly internet blackouts are later imposed.
Popular dissent surges over the weekend of February 6 and 7, with huge crowds gathering on the streets calling for the release of Suu Kyi.
In the following weeks these protests swell to hundreds of thousands of people in cities and villages around the country.
Workers begin a nationwide strike on February 8.
A 19-year-old woman is shot in the head when police fire on crowds in the capital Naypyidaw the next day.
Washington soon announces sanctions against several military officials, including junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
More sanctions follow from Britain and the European Union.
Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, the woman shot 10 days earlier, dies on February 19 after becoming a national symbol of opposition to the junta.
Violent crackdowns on street protests escalate and by March 11, Amnesty International says it has documented atrocities by the junta including the use of battlefield weapons on unarmed protesters.
A day later a UN rights expert on Myanmar accuses the military of crimes against humanity.
More than 100 civilians are killed in protest crackdowns on March 27 during Armed Forces Day, the military’s annual show of strength. It is the deadliest day since the coup.
The next month, ousted civilian lawmakers forced into hiding announce the formation of a shadow “National Unity Government.”
Suu Kyi’s trial begins
More than four months after she was detained, Suu Kyi goes on trial in a junta court.
She faces an eclectic mix of charges, including illegally importing walkie talkies and flouting coronavirus restrictions during elections in 2020.
American journalist detained
Danny Fenster, an editor at local outlet Frontier Myanmar, is detained at Yangon’s airport as he attempts to leave the country on May 24.
He appears in court on June 17 and is charged under a law that criminalizes dissent against the military.
Fellow US citizen and journalist Nathan Maung is released by the junta after months in detention, later telling AFP that he was beaten and denied food and water during interrogation.
Coronavirus infections surge across Myanmar from late June, with many pro-democracy medical staff on strike and the public avoiding military-run hospitals.
People defy curfews to queue for oxygen cylinders for their loved ones and volunteers take up the grim task of bringing out the dead for cremation.
The World Bank forecasts on July 26 that Myanmar’s economy will contract by 18 percent this year as a result of the coup and the coronavirus outbreak, with the poverty rate to double from 2019 levels by next year.
2020 election results cancelled
In late July the junta cancels the results of 2020 polls, claiming more than 11 million instances of voter fraud.
On Sunday, six months to the day the military seized power, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing says new elections will be held by August 2023.