Myanmar military guarantees new election; protesters block train services

Protesters blocked train services between Yangon and the southern city of Mawlamyine. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (REUTERS) - Myanmar's military on Tuesday (Feb 16) guaranteed that it would hold an election and hand power to the winner, denying that its ouster of an elected government was a coup and denouncing protesters for inciting violence and intimidating civil servants.

The military's justification of its Feb 1 seizure of power and arrest of government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others came as protesters again took to the streets and after a UN envoy warned the army of "severe consequences" for any harsh response to the demonstrations.

"Our objective is to hold an election and hand power to the winning party," Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the ruling council, said at the military's first news conference since it seized power.

The military has not given a date for a new election but it has imposed a state of emergency for one year. Brig Gen Zaw Min Tun said the military would not hold power for long.

"We guarantee... that the election will be held," he told the news conference which the military broadcast live over Facebook, a platform the military has banned.

Asked about the detention of Nobel prize winner Suu Kyi and the president, he said the military would abide by the Constitution.

Despite the deployment of armoured vehicles and soldiers in some major cities on the weekend, protesters have kept up their campaign to oppose military rule demand Ms Suu Kyi's release.

As well as the demonstrations in towns and cities across the ethnically diverse country, a civil disobedience movement has brought strikes that are crippling many functions of government.

Protesters blocked train services between Yangon and the southern city of Mawlamyine, milling onto a sun-baked stretch of railway track and waving placards in support of the disobedience movement, live images broadcast by media showed.

"Release our leaders immediately", and "People's power, give it back", the crowd chanted.

Crowds also gathered in two places in the main city of Yangon - at a traditional protest site near the main university campus and at the central bank, where protesters hoped to press staff to join the civil disobedience movement.

About 30 Buddhist monks protested against the coup with prayers in Yangon, while hundreds of protesters marched through the west coast town of Thandwe.

'World is watching'

The unrest has revived memories of bloody outbreaks of opposition to almost half a century of direct army rule that ended in 2011 when the military began a process of withdrawing from civilian politics.

But violence has been limited this time though police have opened fire several times, mostly with rubber bullets, to disperse protesters.

One woman who was shot in the head in the capital Naypyitaw last week is not expected to survive. Brig Gen Zaw Min Tun said one policeman had died of injuries suffered in a protest.

He said the protests were harming stability and spreading fear, and the campaign of civil disobedience amounted to the illegal intimidation of civil servants.

The army took power alleging fraud in a Nov 8 general election in which Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide.

The electoral commission had dismissed the army's complaints but the military spokesman reiterated them on Tuesday.

Ms Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest for her efforts to end military rule and is again being kept under guard at her home in Naypyitaw.

She faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and is being held on remand until Wednesday. Her lawyer said on Tuesday that police had filed a second charge of violating the country's Natural Disaster Management Law.

The coup has prompted an angry response from Western countries, and the United States has already set some sanctions against the ruling generals.

UN Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener spoke on Monday to the deputy head of the junta, in what has become a rare channel of communication between the army and the outside world, urging restraint and the restoration of communications.

"Ms Schraner Burgener has reinforced that the right of peaceful assembly must fully be respected and that demonstrators are not subjected to reprisals," UN spokesman Farhan Haq said at the United Nations.

"She has conveyed to the Myanmar military that the world is watching closely, and any form of heavy-handed response is likely to have severe consequences."

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