YANGON (REUTERS, AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Myanmar’s military declared a one-year state of emergency on Monday (Feb 1) and appointed a general as acting president, after arresting civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior officials.
The military said it would hold a "free and fair general election" after the emergency is over.
An announcement read out on military-owned Myawaddy TV said the move to declare an emergency was needed to preserve the "stability" of the state, accusing the country’s election commission of failing to address "huge irregularities" in the November election.
"The UEC (election commission) failed to solve huge voter lists irregularities in the multi-party general election which was held on Nov 8, 2020," said the statement signed by the new acting president Myint Swe, a former general who had been vice-president.
The statement accused "other party organisations" of "harming the stability of the state".
"As the situation must be resolved according to the law, a state of emergency is declared."
The statement said responsibility for "legislation, administration and judiciary" had been handed over to military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.
The move comes hours after Ms Suu Kyi and other senior figures from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party were detained in an early morning raid.
It also comes after days of escalating tension between the civilian government and the powerful military that stirred fears of a coup in the aftermath of an election the army says was fraudulent.
The NLD said Ms Suu Kyi called on the public not to accept a coup by the military and urged them to protest.
"The actions of the military are actions to put the country back under a dictatorship," the NLD said in a statement which carried Ms Suu Kyi’s name. "I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military."
Earlier on Monday, NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt told Reuters by phone that Ms Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders had been "taken" in the early hours of the morning.
"With the situation we see happening now, we have to assume that the military is staging a coup," he said.
"I want to tell our people not to respond rashly and I want them to act according to the law," he said, adding he also expected to be detained.
Reuters was subsequently unable to contact him.
The Myanmar army said it had carried out the detentions in response to "election fraud", according to a statement on a military-owned television station.
Phone and Internet connections in the capital Naypyitaw and the main commercial centre of Yangon were disrupted and state TV went off air after the NLD leaders were detained.
Troops took up positions in Yangon where residents rushed to markets to stock up on supplies and others lined up at ATMs to withdraw cash. Banks subsequently suspended services due to poor Internet connections.
An NLD lawmaker, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said another of those detained was Mr Han Thar Myint, a member of the party’s central executive committee.
A video posted to Facebook by one MP appeared to show the arrest of another, regional lawmaker Pa Pa Han. In the video, her husband pleads with men in military garb standing outside the gate. A young child can be seen clinging to his chest and wailing.
Elsewhere, the chief minister of Karen state and several other regional ministers were also held, according to party sources.
Some pro-military supporters celebrated the coup, parading through Yangon in pickup trucks and waving national flags but pro-democracy activists were horrified.
"Our country was a bird that was just learning to fly. Now the army broke our wings," said student activist Si Thu Tun.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Ms Suu Kyi, 75, came to power after a 2015 landslide election win that followed decades of house arrest in a struggle for democracy that turned her into an international icon.
Her international standing was damaged after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled army operations into refuge from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state in 2017, but she remains hugely popular at home.
Political tensions soared last week when a military spokesman declined to rule out a coup ahead of the new Parliament convening on Monday, and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing raised the prospect of repealing the Constitution.
Myanmar has seen two coups since independence from Britain in 1948 - one in 1962 and one in 1988.
But the military appeared to backtrack on the weekend, issuing a statement on social media on Sunday saying it would "do everything possible to adhere to the democratic norms of free and fair elections".
Tanks were deployed in some streets last week and pro-military demonstrations have taken place in some cities ahead of the first gathering of Parliament.
Myanmar’s military said on Sunday that it would protect and abide by the Constitution and act according to law, after comments earlier in the week raised fears of a coup.
Myanmar’s election commission has rejected the military’s allegations of vote fraud, saying there were no errors big enough to affect the credibility of the vote.
The Constitution reserves 25 per cent of seats in Parliament for the military and control of three key ministries in Ms Suu Kyi’s administration.
Mr Daniel Russel, the top United States diplomat for East Asia under former president Barack Obama, who fostered close ties with Ms Suu Kyi, said another military takeover in Myanmar would be a severe blow to democracy in the region.
"If true, this is a huge setback – not only for democracy in Myanmar, but for US interests. It’s yet another reminder that the extended absence of credible and steady US engagement in the region has emboldened anti-democratic forces," he said.
Mr Murray Hiebert, a South-east Asia expert at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said the development was a challenge for the new US administration of President Joe Biden.
"The US as recently as Friday had joined other nations in urging the military not to move forward on its coup threats. China will stand by Myanmar like it did when the military kicked out the Rohingya," he said.
"The Biden administration has said it will support democracy and human rights. But the top military officers are already sanctioned so it’s not immediately clear what concretely the US can do quickly."
Mr John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Myanmar’s military had never submitted to civilian rule, and called on the US and other countries to impose "strict and directed economic sanctions" on the military leadership and its economic interests.
Historian and author Thant Myint-U said: "The doors just opened to a very different future. I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next. And remember Myanmar’s a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic and religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves."