YANGON (AFP, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Myanmar’s junta leader on Monday (Feb 8) called on the public to prioritise facts and not feelings, and said an election would be held and power handed to the winning party, in a rare national address, as martial law was imposed in cities after anti-coup protests nationwide.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in his first address since a coup a week ago, said the junta was different to previous military governments. Suitable ministers were selected, he said, adding foreign policy would remain unchanged and countries would be encouraged to invest in Myanmar.
He reiterated there were irregularities in last year’s election that were ignored and said no organisation was above the law.
He made no mention of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Martial law was declared on Monday evening in the country's biggest cities including Yangon and Mandalay.
People are banned from protesting or gathering in groups of more than five, and a curfew will run from 8pm until 4am, the General Administration Department said in a statement.
The announcement came after tens of thousands of people joined a third day of street demonstrations in towns and cities across the country to denounce the military for seizing power and detaining elected leader Suu Kyi last Monday.
“This order is applied until further notice,” one Mandalay township statement said. “Some people... are behaving in a worrying way that can harm the safety of public and law enforcement. Such behaviours can affect stability, safety of people, law enforcement, and peaceful existence of villages and could create riots, that’s why this order bans gathering, speaking in public, protest by using vehicles, rallies,” the statement said.
The military last week detained Ms Suu Kyi and dozens of other members of her National League for Democracy party, ending a decade of partial civilian rule and triggering international condemnation.
The junta has so far refrained from using deadly force against the demonstrations sweeping most of the country, but with pressure building riot police fired water cannon on Monday in an attempt to disperse thousands gathered in Naypyitaw.
Myanmar police had on Monday warned protesters to disperse or face force shortly after state television signalled impending action to stifle the mass demonstrations.
In the capital Naypyitaw, three lines of police in riot gear could be seen across a road as protesters 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 in the road saying that live ammunition could be used if demonstrators breached the third line of officers.
Reuters has been unable to contact the junta for comment on the protests, but state media signalled possible action against them in the first comment from any government channel, saying the public wanted rid of "wrongdoers".
"We, the whole people who value justice, freedom, equality, peace and safety, not only refuse to accept the lawless wrongdoers but also request that they be prevented and removed through cooperation," the MRTV television station said in a comment. Though not attributed to any authority or group, it was later read out on a military-owned network.
In Yangon, the nation’s commercial capital, crowds spilt onto the city’s main roads on Monday, immobilising traffic and dwarfing the previous day’s rally.
“Down with military dictatorship” and “release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and arrested people”, protesters chanted, flashing the three-finger salute that has come to symbolise their movement as car horns were honked in support.
Calls for a nationwide strike had gathered momentum over the weekend, with textile workers, civil servants and railway employees walking out of work in the commercial hub.
“This is a work day, but we aren’t going to work even if our salary will be cut,” one protester, 28-year-old garment factory worker Hnin Thazin, told AFP.
Construction worker Chit Min, 18, joined the Yangon rally, saying his loyalty to Ms Suu Kyi outweighed concerns about his financial situation. “I am jobless now for a week because of the military coup, and I am worried for my survival,” he told AFP.
Similarly large crowds marched in Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, many clutching photos of Ms Suu Kyi and waving the red flags of her party.
Police attempted to disperse thousands of people gathered on a highway in Naypyitaw, where the deposed leader is believed to be detained. Water cannon was fired into the crowd, injuring at least two demonstrators, according to a photographer on the scene.
Huge rallies were also reported across much of the country, from Muse on the Chinese border to the southern cities of Dawei and Hpa-an.
Protesters started to disperse in the early evening.
Myanmar’s generals detained Ms Suu Kyi, 75, and other top NLD leaders in pre-dawn raids last Monday, justifying the coup by claiming fraud in last November’s elections, which the party won in a landslide.
The junta proclaimed a one-year state of emergency, promising to hold fresh elections after that without offering any precise timeframe.
US President Joe Biden has led global calls for the generals to relinquish power.
Pope Francis on Monday called for the prompt release of imprisoned political leaders. “The path to democracy undertaken in recent years was brusquely interrupted by last week’s coup d’etat,” he told a gathering of diplomats. “This has led to the imprisonment of different political leaders, who I hope will be promptly released as a sign of encouragement for a sincere dialogue.”
South-east Asian lawmakers have also urged Myanmar’s military to respect the people’s rights to protest. “As peaceful demonstrations grow, the risk of violence is real. We all know what the Myanmar army is capable of: mass atrocities, killing of civilians, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests, among others,” Mr Tom Villarin from ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said.
Other bold displays of defiance inside Myanmar have included a nightly clamour of people banging pots and pans – a practice traditionally associated with driving out evil spirits.
Myanmar’s military ruled the country for decades before allowing civilian rule a decade ago.
Ms Suu Kyi spent large chunks of her life under house arrest for her opposition to the previous dictatorship, winning the Nobel peace prize for her efforts.
Mr Kyaw Zin Tun, an engineer, said Monday while protesting in Yangon he remembered the fear he felt growing up under junta rule in the 1990s. “In the last five years under the democratic 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 told AFP.