Myanmar’s ruling State Administrative Council said Sunday it has become a caretaker government and its leader, Min Aung Hlaing, is to be prime minister.
The announcement came after Min Aung Hlaing on Sunday repeated his pledge to hold multiparty elections at an unspecified future date.
In a televised address, exactly six months after toppling Myanmar’s elected civilian government, the senior general also said he was ready to cooperate with any special envoy appointed by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Min Aung Hlaing has said before that any elections would take place at least a year after the Feb. 1 putsch.
The military claims it ousted the ruling National League for Democracy because the party had ignored allegations that general elections in November 2020 were riddled with fraud. The NLD had won the poll in a landslide, drubbing the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party, in a contest deemed mostly free and fair by local and international election observers.
Since the coup, security forces have shot and killed more than 900 people and arrested thousands in a bid to quash protests and a stubborn civil disobedience movement opposed to the coup, according to the Assistance Associate for Political Prisoners, a rights group tracking the junta’s crackdown from neighboring Thailand.
The military has also arrested dozens of NLD leaders, including de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and put some on trial for sedition and other alleged crimes. Many more NLD members are in hiding in and outside the country.
The regime has labelled the clandestine government the ousted lawmakers have helped set up in hopes of wresting control from the generals a terrorist group.
Skepticism inside Myanmar
Initial reaction to the announcement in Myanmar was mixed.
Chan Lian, executive director of the Hornbill Organization, an election monitoring group, told VOA it seemed unlikely elections would be held in the next two years.
“Historically, elections have been held for almost three decades after the previous military coup d'état,” he said.
“It is hard for us to believe that it will be held in next two years,” he said, adding, “We can only believe it when the election date is announced.”
He said he thinks “there would be very few political parties running in the upcoming election” if it were held by the military.
Sai Nyunt Lwin, deputy chair of the Shan National League for Democracy, an ethnic opposition party, also was skeptical.
“We do not have much trust what he [Min Aung Hlain] has said,” Sai Nyunt Lwin told VOA.
“The Hluttaw [Myanmar’s parliament] was not convened after the 1990 election. When the 2010 election was held again, the top party leaders including NLD and SNLD were imprisoned. The election was not free and fair and not a credible election.
“Now, the 2020 election result was annulled again. Our party does not accept cancelation of the election result. We still recognize the winning MPs of our party. The SNLD won 42 seats in the 2020 general election,” he said.
Khin Zaw Win, the director of Tampadipa Institute, an advocacy group in Yangon, was also skeptical, saying, “It is unbelievable that the military will hold election in the next two years, adding that he does not believe ASEAN has the capacity to deal with Myanmar even if they appoint a mediator.
Phe Than, a member of the Central Policy Affairs Committee of the Arakan National Party, an ethnic party in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, struck a similar chord.
"It remains to be seen whether the situation to hold the election will be ready during these years,” he told VOA.
Ethnic parties now find it hard to believe in the election, he said, since the military announced the cancelation of the 2020 election results. He said if Suu Kyi’s NLD does not run, allied parties will not run, adding, “In the absence of participation, the military will pretend to be trying to hold a general election. at that time, I think it is possible there will be a new type of coup by the military to retain power.”
Nandar Hla Myint, however, spokesperson and general secretary of the military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party, was more positive.
“We are confident that the chairman of the State Administrative Council will hold election as he pledges,” he said.
“As a political party, we will contest the best in the election. The previous election results were annulled because it was not free and fair. It would not have been annulled if it had been handled with responsibility to the complaints of military and political party over election frauds.”
NLD seen as the key
Hervé Lemahieu, a Myanmar analyst with the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, said the credibility of any elections the regime stages will rest on whether the hugely popular NLD, which has easily won every general election it has contested, is given a fair chance.
He and other Myanmar watchers believe the junta is prosecuting the NLD’s leaders as a pretext, once they’re convicted, to ban the party outright.
“Given that Min Aung Hlaing has already publicly said that he hopes to learn from the Thai experience, and that the amount of back-and-forth and consultations between [Thai Prime Minister] Prayut Chan-ocha and Min Aung Hlaing, there’s every reason to consider these next elections will be highly stacked in favor of the military and have conditions which will basically prevent the NLD or any … rebranded NLD from running, so it will not be free and fair,” he said.
Prayut also seized power at the helm of a military coup in 2014 and became prime minister after 2019 elections that the opposition claims were rigged in his favor, an allegation Prayut denies.
Lemahieu said any poll without the NLD’s full participation would be little more than “window dressing,” though some smaller parties might be convinced to run to at least give the semblance of a genuine contest.
“The generals will hope that it will give them some added degree of credibility at least in the region, if not in the eyes of the West, that will be passable for ASEAN,” he said.
“I would imagine that most self-respecting, well established pro-democracy opposition figures, if they’re not already in jail, would refrain from running,” he added. “But you would be left with a small list of fringe parties who probably would see that [election] as beneficial potentially to run in.”
Lemahieu said an ASEAN envoy could help nudge the generals toward a fair contest if the bloc selects someone with well-established democratic credentials and lets them operate mostly independent of the group’s chair, which rotates among the 10 members every year. If the envoy changes with each new chair, he said, “it’s not a recipe for success.”
Zsombor Peter in Bangkok contributed to this report.