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Myanmar junta chief named head of ‘caretaker government’, pledges election in two years

Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing was appointed prime minister of a newly formed “caretaker government” on Sunday, hours after delivering a televised speech in which he promised to hold an election in two years’ time. 

The senior general, who came to power in a predawn coup exactly six months ago, did not mention his new title or the formation of an interim government in his 52-minute-long address on state television on Sunday morning.

The move, which was announced by state media later in the day, involves not only the creation of a cabinet to be headed by Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy, Vice-Senior General Soe Win, but also changes at the state and regional level.

New cabinets were appointed for the states and regions, which will each have a chief minister, six ministers, and an attorney general, the announcement said.

Yangon and Mandalay, the country’s two largest cities, will also have ministries in their respective regional governments, with their mayors acting as ministers.

The junta appointed army officers with the rank of colonel to head each state or region’s ministry of security and border affairs, while police colonels will head the ministries of transportation.

In his speech, Min Aung Hlaing cited the military-drafted 2008 constitution as the basis for his timeline to hold a new election.

He said the constitution allows for two six-month extensions of the one-year state of emergency that was imposed immediately after the February 1 military takeover. Six more months would be needed to prepare for the election, he added.

“We will accomplish the provisions of the state of emergency by August 2023,” he said. 

He also repeated accusations of electoral fraud against the civilian government led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won a landslide victory in last year’s polls. 

A day after seizing power, Min Aung Hlaing said that holding another election within a year would be a priority of his regime. So far, however, the only step it has taken has been to annul the results of last year’s election.

Last week, the junta-appointed election commission announced that it had overturned the results of the election, which delivered a humiliating defeat to the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

The commission claimed that there were more than 11 million errors in the vote count, and accused the then ruling NLD of violating Covid-19 public health restrictions in an attempt to stay in power for another five-year term.

The country has become a failed state. And the army has become broken inside, too. So this is to delude the junta’s own army – NUG’s judicial minister

Local and international observers have dismissed the military’s claims of fraud and said the election results reflected the desire of the majority of Myanmar’s people.

These latest developments were seen by critics of the regime as evidence of both its weakness and its determination to hold onto power. 

Thein Oo, the judicial minister of the shadow National Unity Government, said the junta’s move was aimed at the military and meant to “delude” its ranks with false hopes of power.

“The country has become a failed state. And the army has become broken inside, too. So this is to delude [the junta’s] own army. It is certainly not about the election, but to keep the army in line,” he said.

A long-time observer of Myanmar’s governance system said that Sunday’s speech and announcement both signalled the regime’s plans to stay in power indefinitely.

“It is pretty certain that they are trying to hold power as a government for the long term,” said the observer, who works with a civil society organisation and asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

This is not the first time that Myanmar has been under a military caretaker government. In 1958, army chief Ne Win was invited by then Prime Minister U Nu to lead the country for two years amid a growing political crisis.

Although Ne Win duly returned power at the end of this term, he went on to stage a coup in 1962 that ushered in half a century of military rule.

The regime did not attempt to justify the formation of a new caretaker government on constitutional grounds, but in his speech, Min Aung Hlaing reiterated his position that the coup was in line with the constitution and pledged to establish a union of “democracy and federalism” in Myanmar.

He also said the military council would work with any special envoy named by the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) to implement a five-point agreement adopted by the regional grouping at a special summit held to address the crisis in Myanmar in late April.

“Myanmar is ready to work on ASEAN cooperation within the ASEAN framework, including the dialogue with the ASEAN special envoy in Myanmar,” he said.

Reuters reported that the ASEAN foreign ministers plan to meet on Monday in a bid to finalise the appointment of a special envoy tasked with ending the violence in Myanmar and promoting dialogue between the junta and its opponents.

Myanmar has been on the brink of collapse since the coup, which immediately triggered nationwide protests and a strike by hundreds of thousands of civil servants, including healthcare workers.

Brutal crackdowns by the military have since spawned an armed resistance movement targeting the regime’s armed forces and junta collaborators, raising fears of spiralling violence.

The country’s economy has also been in a freefall under Min Aung Hlaing’s rule, with the number of people living in poverty expected to double this year, according to the World Bank.

Over the past month, the country has also battled the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Official figures show that the disease is claiming hundreds of lives daily, although the actual number of deaths is likely much higher.

In his speech, Min Aung Hlaing blamed “terrorists” opposed to his rule for the country’s woes.

“Protests staged across the nation after February 1 were transformed into anarchic and then armed conflict. Innocent people were killed by surprise. Why did they kill the people? Why did they attack the people living in peace? We can’t accept it,” he said.

The junta has killed more than 900 civilians, including dozens of children, and arrested nearly 7,000 in an effort to suppress dissent and control the country. According to Min Aung Hlaing, this response has been in line with international norms.

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