Myanmar junta chief names himself prime minister, says will cooperate with Asean

Protesters stand beside a banner protesting against Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration in Yangon, on July 3, 2021.
Protesters stand beside a banner protesting against Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration in Yangon, on July 3, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - Myanmar's military junta on Sunday (Aug 1) declared itself caretaker government of the embattled country, with chief Min Aung Hlaing named as prime minister.

The announcement will likely raise the stakes as Asean foreign ministers hold a virtual meeting on Monday to find the way forward in Myanmar's six-month-old political and humanitarian crisis.

Although Asean has not officially recognised the junta, its representatives have been taking part in official Asean meetings. Similar access has not been given to leaders of the rival National Unity Government which includes elected lawmakers ousted by the Feb 1 military coup.

In a 50-minute speech broadcast over state media on Sunday, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing - dressed in a traditional jacket instead of a military uniform - promised to hold a "free and fair" election and lift the current state of emergency by August 2023. He claims the November 2020 election that re-elected the National League for Democracy (NLD) government was fraudulent.

The military chief also said: "Myanmar is ready to work on Asean cooperation within the Asean framework, including the dialogue with the special Asean envoy of Myanmar."

Earlier, he appeared to have dismissed a five-point consensus on the Myanmar crisis hammered out by Asean leaders in April. The junta said it would cooperate with Asean only if the steps proposed complemented its road map.

Since April, Asean has struggled to pick a special envoy to facilitate a dialogue among Myanmar's political stakeholders.

Gen Min Aung Hlaing said on Sunday that his administration had chosen former Thai deputy foreign minister Virasakdi Futrakul, one of the nominees for the role, "but for various reasons the new proposals were released and we could not keep moving onward".

Other nominees were reportedly former Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda, Brunei's second foreign affairs minister Erywan Yusof and veteran Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail.

Myanmar's healthcare system, already debilitated by medical workers' strikes and military reprisals on dissidents, has been overwhelmed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Officially, the country logged 4,725 new cases on Saturday. But its death toll reached 392 - triple that of neighbouring Thailand, which is logging four times as many new infections.

Given the severe constraints on the testing capacities within Myanmar, medical experts said the country's real Covid-19 caseload is far higher. Many patients are being treated at home by volunteer doctors and charity workers, who told The Straits Times they have to work discreetly to evade arrest.

Meanwhile, violent military crackdowns on people opposing the coup have spawned "people's defence forces" which are waging localised insurgencies against the junta. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 940 people have been killed by the junta since the coup.

The numbers are disputed by Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who blamed "NLD extremists" on Sunday for inciting healthcare workers to turn against the state. He alleged that people were committing "bioterrorism" by spreading fake news about Covid-19.

The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, comprising a group of international experts working on human rights in the country, has called for international humanitarian intervention in Myanmar.

"The makeshift efforts to ease the plight of people crossing into Thailand and India are far from being able to roll back the epicentre of the pandemic within the country, which needs to be the primary strategic objective of massive regional and international action," said council member Marzuki Darusman in a statement released on July 22.