Myanmar junta says it will hold ‘free and fair’ elections but no timeline given

Myanmar's military chief Min Aung Hlaing reviews a military display in Naypyitaw on Jan 4, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

NAYPYITAW - Myanmar’s junta said it would hold “free and fair” multiparty elections as it marked Independence Day on Wednesday.

The junta, which recently wrapped up a series of closed-court trials of jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is preparing for fresh elections later this year that the United States has said would be a “sham”.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, in a speech to mark Myanmar’s 75th Independence Day, told troops and supporters in the capital Naypyitaw: “Upon accomplishing the provisions of the state of emergency, free and fair elections will be held in line with the 2008 Constitution.”

The junta-imposed state of emergency is due to expire at the end of January, after which the Constitution states the authorities must set in motion plans to hold fresh elections.

The junta chief gave no timeline for any election.

The junta-appointed election commission was meeting with political parties for discussions on “the proportional representation electoral system”, General Min Aung Hlaing said, without giving further details.

Analysts say the junta may scrap the first-past-the-post system that saw Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) win sweeping majorities in 2015 and 2020.

Gen Min Aung Hlaing on Wednesday also lashed out at nations for intervening in his country’s affairs, while thanking others for “positively” cooperating, noting how it was working closely with neighbours such as China, India and Thailand. 

The South-east Asian country has faced international isolation and Western-led sanctions since the military seized power from a democratically elected government led by Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, nearly two years ago.

“I want to say thank you to some international and regional countries and organisations and individuals who positively cooperated with us... in the midst of all the pressure, criticisms and attacks,” Gen Min Aung Hlaing said. 

“We are closely working with neighbouring countries such as China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh.

“We will work together for border stability and development,” he said in the televised speech from the national day parade in Naypyitaw.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent “sincere greetings” and anticipated the “further development” of relations, according to state-run newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar.

Russia is a major ally and arms supplier of the isolated junta, which has said Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was “justified”.

Myanmar declared independence from British colonial rule on Jan 4, 1948, after a long fight championed by General Aung San, the father of Ms Suu Kyi.

Independence Day is normally marked with festive street games, marches and gatherings in public parks and spaces. But since the putsch, celebrations of public holidays have been largely muted as people stay at home in protest against the junta.

AFP correspondents said there was an increased security presence in commercial hub Yangon, which has been hit by a string of bomb attacks in recent months.

The US Embassy warned of “potential increases in attacks, targeted shootings or explosions” on Wednesday.  

Myanmar military vehicles and hardware on display to mark the country’s Independence Day in Naypyitaw on Jan 4, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

The military has alleged massive voter fraud during elections in November 2020, which were won resoundingly by the NLD, as a reason for its coup.

International observers said at the time the polls were largely free and fair.

Ms Suu Kyi began serving a 26-year prison sentence over several charges she has faced since the coup. She was later convicted of five counts of graft late last year and jailed for seven more years, wrapping up a marathon of trials condemned internationally as a sham designed to keep the junta’s biggest threat at bay amid widespread domestic resistance to its rule.

She is being held in a jail in Naypyitaw in solitary confinement, and the military insists she has received due process by an independent court.

The authorities typically release some prisoners to mark Independence Day. A junta spokesman said more than 7,000 prisoners will be freed this time, without specifying whether the amnesty would include those jailed as part of a crackdown on dissent.

News channel MRTV said the latest amnesty would not include those convicted of murder and rape, or jailed for charges related to explosives, unlawful association, weapons, drugs, natural disaster management and corruption.

The United Nations Security Council last month adopted its first resolution on Myanmar in 74 years, demanding an end to violence and the junta to free all political detainees.

Still, the junta has maintained some international support.

The UN Security Council remains split over how to deal with the Myanmar crisis, with China and Russia arguing against strong action. They also abstained from last month’s vote on a resolution, along with India. AFP, REUTERS

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