Myanmar’s military junta guaranteed on Tuesday that it would hold an election and hand over power, denied its ouster of an elected government was a coup or that its leaders were detained, and accused protesters of violence and intimidation.
The junta’s defence of its Feb 1 seizure of power and arrest of government leader Aug San Suu Kyi and others came as protesters again took to the streets and as China dismissed rumours spreading on social media that it had helped with the coup.
“Our objective is to hold an election and hand power to the winning party,” Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the ruling council, told the junta’s first news conference since overthrowing Suu Kyi’s government.
The military has not given a date for a new election but has imposed a state of emergency for one year. Zaw Min Tun said the military would not hold power for long.
“We guarantee […] that the election will be held,” he told the nearly two-hour news conference, which the military broadcast from the capital, Naypyitaw, live over Facebook, a platform it has banned.
Asked about the detention of Nobel prize winner Suu Kyi and the president, Zaw Min Tun dismissed the suggestion they were in detention, saying they were in their homes for their security while the law took its course.
He also said Myanmar’s foreign policy would not change, it remained open for business and deals would be upheld.
The military will be hoping its reassurances will dampen the campaign of daily opposition to its rule and to the ousting of Suu Kyi and her government.
As well as the demonstrations in towns and cities across the ethnically diverse country, a civil disobedience movement has brought strikes that are crippling many functions of government.
The unrest has revived memories of bloody outbreaks of opposition to almost half a century of direct army rule that ended in 2011 when the military began a process of withdrawing from politics.
While violence has been limited this time, police have opened fire several times, mostly with rubber bullets, to disperse protesters. Six people were wounded in the central town of Maungmya on Tuesday when police fired rubber bullets to break up a protest over an arrested teacher, a witness said.
A woman who was shot in the head in Naypyitaw last week is not expected to survive. Zaw Min Tun said a policeman had died of injuries sustained during a protest.
He said the protesters were starting violence while the campaign of civil disobedience amounted to the illegal intimidation of civil servants.
“We will wait patiently. After that, we will take action according to the law,” Zaw Min Tun said.
The army has given itself extensive search and detention powers and has made penal code amendments aimed at stifling dissent with tough prison terms.
Protesters milled onto a sun-baked stretch of railway track earlier in the day waving placards in support of the disobedience movement and blocking trains between Yangon and the southern city of Mawlamyine.
“Release our leaders immediately,” and “People’s power, give it back,” the crowd chanted in live images broadcast by media.
Crowds also gathered in the main city of Yangon, including at the central bank, where protesters called for staff to join the civil disobedience movement.
Hundreds marched through the west coast town of Thanked.
The army took power alleging that its complaints of fraud in a Nov 8 general election, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party had won a landslide, were being ignored.
The electoral commission had dismissed the army’s complaints.
Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest for her efforts to end military rule.
She faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and is being held on remand until Wednesday. Her lawyer said on Tuesday police had filed a second charge of violating a Natural Disaster Management Law.
The coup has prompted an angry response from Western countries and the United States has set some sanctions against the generals.
But China has taken a softer approach, arguing stability should be the priority in its neighbour, where it has close contacts with the military.
China did, however, join other UN Security Council members in calling for the release of Suu Kyi.
On Tuesday, its ambassador, Chen Hai, said the situation was “absolutely not what China wants to see” and dismissed rumours of Chinese involvement in the coup as “complete nonsense”.
Chen, in an interview with media posted on the embassy’s Facebook page, said China maintained friendly relations with both the army and the former government and had not been “informed in advance of the political change”.
Monks on the march
A group of Buddhist monks also marched against Myanmar’s military junta on Tuesday.
About 20 monks in dark red robes walked through the streets of the main city of Yangon to a United Nations office, urging citizens to join their protest.
“I would like to request that all citizens help eliminate the power of the military dictatorship until we can get rid of this system,” said one of the protesting monks, Sandar Thiri.
Monks held an English-language banner with the message: “Monks who don’t want a military dictatorship”.
Some wore red masks to ward off the coronavirus and carried signs saying “reject military coup”.
Historically, monks in the predominately Buddhist country have helped organise communities, and at times led opposition to authority, in particular during British colonial rule.
Big pro-democracy protests in 2007 were called the “Saffron Revolution” because of the prominent involvement of monks.