(Reuters) -Myanmar’s junta extended the country’s state of emergency by another six months, the acting president said at a leadership meeting broadcast on state TV on Wednesday, as protesters marked the anniversary of a 2021 military coup with a “silent protest”.
Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing, in a meeting on Tuesday with the army-backed National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), also said multi-party elections must be held “as the people desire”.
He did not provide a timeline for the polls, which cannot be held during a state of emergency. Critics have said any elections are likely to be a sham aimed at allowing the military to retain power.
“Although according to the section 425 of the constitution, (a state of emergency) can only be granted two times, the current situation is under unusual circumstances and it is suitable to extend it one more time of six months,” Acting President Myint Swe saying said at the meeting broadcast by MRTV.
The Southeast Asian country’s top generals led a putsch in February 2021 after five years of tense power-sharing under a quasi-civilian political system created by the military.
Protesters and exiled civilian leaders on Wednesday vowed to end what they called the army’s “illegal power grab”. In major cities across Myanmar, streets emptied as people stayed home in protest, while hundreds of democracy supporters attended rallies in Thailand and the Philippines.
The overthrow of the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi derailed a decade of reform, international engagement and economic growth, while leaving a trail of upended lives in its wake.
Myanmar has been in chaos since the coup, with a resistance movement fighting the military on multiple fronts after a bloody crackdown on opponents that saw Western sanctions re-imposed.
In the main commercial cities of Yangon and Mandalay, images on social media showed deserted streets in what coup opponents called a “silent protest” against the junta. Democracy activists had urged people not to go out between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
There was also a rally in Yangon by about 100 supporters of the military, flanked by soldiers, photographs showed.
In Thailand, hundreds of anti-coup protesters held a rally outside Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok.
“This year is decisive for us to completely uproot the military regime,” said Acchariya, a Buddhist monk attending the rally.
Others in the crowd chanted: “We are the people, we have the future” and “The revolution must prevail.”
Activists also staged a protest in the Philippine capital, Manila.
Vowing continued U.S. support for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and threatening further sanctions against the junta, State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet told reporters: “We saw yet another example of the resilience and the diversity of Burmese civil society with the silent strike.”
ARMY-BACKED COUNCIL ISSUES STATEMENT
The NDSC met on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Myanmar including the actions of the National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow administration formed by opponents, and the so-called people’s defence force fighting the army, state media reported.
“The unusual circumstances of the country whereby they are making attempts to seize state power in an insurgent and terror-like ways (was discussed),” the military-owned Myawaddy media said on Tuesday.
Telephone calls to a military spokesperson seeking comment went unanswered.
Myanmar’s military took power after complaining of fraud in a November 2020 general election won by Suu Kyi’s party. Election monitoring groups found no evidence of mass fraud.
It declared a state of emergency for a year when it took power and has since extended it twice for six months, with the latest phase expiring on Wednesday.
The constitution allows for two extensions, though some sections appear to give more flexibility on the issue.
The NUG issued a statement of defiance, saying that “together with ethnic allies, who have opposed the military for decades, we will end the military’s illegal power grab.”
The United States and allies including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada imposed further sanctions on Myanmar on Tuesday, with curbs on energy officials and junta members, among others.
The junta has pledged to hold an election in August this year. State media recently announced tough requirements for parties to contest, a move that critics say could sideline the military’s opponents and cement its grip on politics.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party was decimated by the coup, with thousands of its members arrested or jailed, including Suu Kyi, and many more in hiding.
It has described this year’s planned election as “phoney” and said it would not acknowledge it. The election has also been dismissed as a sham by Western governments.
In a telephone briefing, Chollet reiterated the Biden administration’s position, saying “any election without the full participation of Myanmar’s people would represent a naked attempt by the junta to cling to power.”
Some 1.2 million people have been displaced and over 70,000 have left the country, according to the United Nations, which has accused the military of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Simon Cameron-Moore, Nick Macfie and Daniel Wallis)