BANGKOK – Myanmar’s ruling military leader pardoned over 7,000 prisoners, including some political detainees, and detailed plans for an election later this year during a ceremony Wednesday marking the 75th anniversary of independence from Britain.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing urged other nations and international organizations, as well as his country’s own people, to support “the genuine, discipline-flourishing multiparty democratic system,” a concept the ruling military has defined as its goal since it ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021.
The army’s takeover reversed nearly a decade of progress toward democracy after 50 years of military rule.
The plan for a general election is widely seen as an attempt to normalize the military’s seizure of power through the ballot box and to deliver a result that ensures the generals retain control. The military will control the entire process and has spent the past two years enfeebling any credible opposition.
There was no sign the pardoning of 7,012 prisoners, along with a partial commutation of the sentences of other inmates not convicted of serious crimes, included Suu Kyi. She has been held virtually incommunicado by the military since it seized power.
The 77-year-old Suu Kyi is serving 33 years imprisonment after being convicted of a series of politically tinged prosecutions brought by the military. They include illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, breaching the official secrets act, sedition, election fraud and corruption.
Her supporters and independent analysts say the cases against her are an attempt to discredit her and legitimize the military’s seizure of power while keeping her from taking part in the election that the military has said would take place by August this year.
At Insein Prison in Yangon – Myanmar’s most notorious – relatives thronged the gates and celebrated as loved ones were driven out of the compound on buses.
Asked how he felt about his release, a former information officer for Suu Kyi’s political party, Htin Lin Oo, was restrained in his response. He was arrested on the morning of of the army takeover and in February last year sentenced to three years in prison for incitement.
“What really matters is whether it’s a real freedom or not. I want a real kind of freedom," he said. “I don’t just want to be released from jail but I also want freedom for all of my life, all of my hopes, my family and all the new generations.”
The first real move toward elections could occur at the end of this month, when the latest six-month extension of a state of emergency declared by the military is completed.
“Upon accomplishing the provisions of the state of emergency, free and fair elections will be held in line with the 2008 constitution, and further work will be undertaken to hand over state duties to the winning party in accordance with the democratic standards,” Min Aung Hlaing said in his speech in the capital, Naypyitaw, where he also presided over a large-scale parade.
The military justified its takeover by claiming massive fraud in the 2020 election, though independent election observers did not find any major irregularities.
Military units and civil servants marched in formation close to the grandiose parliament complex while fighter jets, bombers and helicopters flew overhead.
Although not officially outlawed, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has effectively been broken up, its leaders and many members either jailed or in hiding. All forms of dissent are suppressed by security forces, sometimes with lethal force.
The party won a second successive landslide victory in the 2020 general election, a result that triggered its overthrow by the military the following year. The military action led to peaceful nationwide protests that security forces quashed, triggering armed resistance that some U.N. experts characterize as civil war.
Myanmar's history even before the 2021 takeover was marked by decades of armed conflict between the central government and ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy, mostly in border regions.
That conflict still rages through most of the country, and Min Aung Hlaing stressed that “the cessation of internal armed conflicts to ensure national solidarity and peace, which are absolute necessities for our country and strenuous efforts, are being made towards that end.”
Min Aung Hlaing's government’s toppling of democracy and fierce repression of all opposition have also made it a pariah state, and many countries have slapped political and economic sanctions against the ruling generals.
“It is seen that some organizations and countries had meddled in the internal affairs of Myanmar. However, we have decided to stand firm globally, while adhering to our foreign policy in order to safeguard the sovereignty, security and interests of our nation," he said.