Myanmar marks 2 years since coup, eyes polls amid violence

Kyodo News

Posted at Feb 01 2023 11:17 AM

Indian Myanmar's pro-democracy activists and Myanmar refugees living in India hold posters and placards as they participate in a protest against the Myanmar's military rule in New Delhi, India, Feb. 22, 2022. Harish Tyagi, EPA-EFE/File 
Indian Myanmar's pro-democracy activists and Myanmar refugees living in India hold posters and placards as they participate in a protest against the Myanmar's military rule in New Delhi, India, Feb. 22, 2022. Harish Tyagi, EPA-EFE/File 

YANGON — Myanmar on Wednesday marked 2 years since the coup that ousted its democratically elected government, enduring prolonged conflict between the now-ruling military and those who call for democracy that has seen thousands killed.

While the junta has vowed to hold a general election and transfer power to the winning party this year, there are doubts about whether it is feasible to hold polls fairly as the military continues its attacks in regions where ethnic minority militias and pro-democracy citizens have taken up arms against it.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader until the Feb. 1, 2021, coup, has been tried on 19 charges, including corruption and election fraud, and now faces a total of 33 years in prison, an effective life sentence for the 77-year-old Nobel Peace laureate.

The outlawed National Unity Government, or NUG, Myanmar's government-in-exile formed by key members of Suu Kyi's political party who managed to escape arrest, does not support the election, claiming it would be a sham.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which had been in power since 2016, won a landslide victory in the general election in November 2020. But the military alleged widespread voter fraud and toppled the NLD-led government and retook power.

Citizens' peaceful protests against the coup, which were met with harsh military crackdowns, have since morphed into NUG-supported armed resistance. In the past 2 years, more than 2,900 people from the anti-coup camp have been killed, with over 17,500 arrested, according to activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, based in neighboring Thailand.

Last October, for example, up to 80 people were killed in an air attack by the military in northern Myanmar's Kachin State, according to local media reports.

The death toll of those supporting the military regime is also mounting, with at least 3,542 people accused of being military informants having been killed, according to a report released by the junta.

The figure does not include soldiers killed during clashes with armed citizens of the People's Defense Force or armed ethnic minority groups.

Until Tuesday, the country had been under a state of emergency declared by the National Defense and Security Council following the coup.

Junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said in his Jan. 4 Independence Day speech that his government is "striving" to hold the promised general election but stopped short of giving the date.

A military-appointed election commission has been training township officials on handling voter lists by using computer software, according to state media reports.

If the election is held, the pro-military USDP would win and a new government would be only a reshuffle of the junta's ministers, with Min Aung Hlaing continuing to rule the country, according to reports by local independent news outlets.

The NLD is the only opposition party strong enough to defeat the USDP. But the party, whose leaders are mostly in jail or in exile, said in a statement Sunday it will "steadfastly object to the sham elections" planned by the military.

The NUG parallel government-in-exile has also vowed to annul the results of the election if it is held.

"As the junta has been cornered without any exit, it is now trying to create a way out by holding a sham election," the NUG's acting president Duwa Lashi La said in a recent speech, calling on all forces to step up the war against the military rule.

As the country is suffering from economic contraction since the coup, some in the business sector are wondering whether the election, despite concerns over its credibility, could bring an end to the current phase of military rule and lead to economic recovery.

A 61-year-old man running a food and beverage business named Tun said he hopes the military would allow a return to some form of civilian rule after the polls, while acknowledging more bloodshed might occur during and after them.

"We can't do anything but try to hang on and hope that things will get better gradually after the election," he said.

The country's economy contracted by 6 percent in 2021, while inflation in 2022 is estimated to have reached 16 percent, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Diplomatic efforts have yielded little progress, with the military not following through on a 5-point consensus forged with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in April 2021, with the aim of finding a peaceful solution to the country's political crisis.

Indonesia took over ASEAN's annually rotating chairmanship in January. Compared with Cambodia, last year's chair, Indonesia is expected to put more pressure on the junta to abide by the five-point consensus that prioritizes the immediate cessation of violence and the starting of a dialogue among opposing forces.

Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in January that she will set up an ASEAN special envoy office on the situation in Myanmar to engage with all stakeholders and address the post-coup crisis in the country.

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