Myanmar junta chief says will hold 'free and fair' elections

Myanmar's military chief Min Aung Hlaing stands in a car as he oversees a military display at a parade ground to mark the country's Independence Day in Naypyidaw on January 4, 2023. Photo by AFP

Yangon, Myanmar -- Myanmar's junta said it would hold "free and fair" multiparty elections as it marked Independence Day on Wednesday, days after increasing democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi's jail term to 33 years.

Swaths of the Southeast Asian country have been engulfed by fighting between junta troops and anti-coup rebels since the military seized power almost two years ago.

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

"Upon accomplishing the provisions of the state of emergency, free and fair elections will be held in line with the 2008 constitution," junta chief Min Aung Hlaing told troops and supporters in Naypyidaw.

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

The junta chief gave no timetable for any election.

Myanmar's military has made unsubstantiated allegations of massive voter fraud during elections in November 2020, which were won resoundingly by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, as a reason for its coup.

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

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

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

- Tanks, jets -

Tanks, missile launchers and armoured cars rolled through the dawn air to a parade ground in the capital Naypyidaw in a military display marking 75 years since Myanmar gained independence from Britain.

Civil servants and high school students followed the troops, accompanied by a military band as 750 "peace" doves were released to mark the occasion, according to state media.

The junta -- which regularly marks holidays with prisoner amnesties -- later announced 7,012 prisoners would be freed, without specifying whether the amnesty would include those jailed as part of its crackdown on dissent.

Those convicted of crimes including murder, rape, and terrorism would not be eligible, it said, without providing further details.

Families later gathered outside Yangon's Insein prison in the hope their loved ones would be freed, local media reported.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun did not respond to an AFP request for comment on whether Suu Kyi would be moved from her prison to house arrest as part of the amnesty.

"We are still collecting information, and have no details yet for how many political prisoners were released," said Bo Kyi, joint secretary from local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

- Muted celebrations -

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

The junta has handed out hundreds of awards and medals to its supporters in the run-up to the event, including to a firebrand monk known for his role in stirring up religious hatred in Myanmar.

Wirathu -- dubbed "The Buddhist bin Laden" by Time Magazine in 2013 following deadly communal riots -- was awarded the title of "Thiri Pyanchi" on Tuesday, for "outstanding work for the good of the Union of Myanmar".

Independence Day is normally marked with festive street games, marches, and gatherings in public parks and spaces.

But celebrations of public holidays have been largely muted since the coup as people stay home in protest against the junta.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, marked the day by sending "sincere greetings", adding that he 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 almost a year ago was "justified".

Two Sukhoi Su-30 jets and two MiG-29s made a flyby as part of the parade, state media said.

More than 13,000 people arrested in the junta's crackdown on dissent remain in detention according to figures published on Tuesday by AAPP.

© Agence France-Presse

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