This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
Naypyidaw/ Yangon, Myanmar – Since launching their February 1 military coup, Myanmar’s generals have largely stayed out of the limelight, secluded in the country’s ghost town capital of Naypyidaw.
In an attempt to justify the power grab as well as the violence used against civilians, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s commander-in-chief and Myanmar’s de-facto ruler, has repeatedly cited claims of election fraud in last year’s November 8 elections. The elections commission, however, says the allegations are baseless.
Zaw Min Tun told the Globe that all political parties would be permitted to stand in any coming election. But he refused to answer when asked whether that promise would include the now-detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won a resounding victory over the military’s political proxy in the November contest.
Instead, the brigadier general pointed to the ongoing investigation into charges filed by military prosecutors against the toppled state counsellor, namely the import of supposedly unregistered walkie-talkies, bribery charges and alleged breaches of COVID-19 safety measures, that have been used both to justify the coup and Aung San Suu Kyi’s current house arrest.
“I don’t have any comments on the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or whether she is allowed to run in the upcoming elections, it depends on what she did in the past. If we find that she did bad things she will be punished,” Zaw Min Tun said.
“The NLD as a whole is also part of this ongoing interrogation but it will take time. For example, if someone has committed murder it will take time to determine if they are guilty.”
That kind of hardline rhetoric has been consistent in the post-coup messaging of the Tatmadaw. The military has claimed to represent democratic principles even as its forces have imprisoned most of the popularly elected government and killed more than 550 of its own citizens.
Fabricated charges and drawn-out court trials have also been at the core of the military’s playbook, especially in efforts to suppress Aung San Suu Kyi, a longtime icon of democracy in Myanmar, and her party. Zaw Min Tun suggested neither would escape the Tatmadaw’s grip anytime soon.
Whether the NLD participates or not, holding a new election at all has been widely denounced by the Myanmar public, which has demanded in the ensuing protests for the November vote to be respected and Aung San Suu Kyi to be released.
Turning the blame on protesters
In cities and townships across the country, citizens of diverse backgrounds have gathered in support of the Civil Disobedience Movement, filling the streets in swelling protests at times numbering hundreds of thousands of people, with the total number in the millions.
Security forces likewise gathered to quash the movement, firing live ammunition at protesters and at times indiscriminately into homes and businesses. Many of those killed in the chaotic countermeasures of the military and police have been mere bystanders to the protests, including at least 46 children.During the heavily monitored foreign press tour, the military tried to turn the blame onto the protesters. Part of that effort included recruiting supporters from the Yangon region to speak to the foreign journalists. That group of heavily coached and vetted civilians recited accounts of alleged attacks they suffered at the hands of “violators”, the term used by the military to refer to anti-coup demonstrators.
Sayadaw U Thiri Dhamma, a monk from the Wut Kway Taw Pyay monastery in one of Yangon’s northern townships, walked into the news conference in his monastic robes and an eye patch peeking out from behind dark sunglasses.
He said a group of 100 protesters attacked him after believing he was a Tatmadaw spy. The date of the attack is unclear, changing as he speaks between an unspecified date in February to sometime in March.
“There were protesters gathered outside my monastery making noise. When I asked them to be quiet, they attacked me with catapults and accused me of being a spy for the military,” said U Thiri Dhamma.
“In Yangon, it was not only one monastery, there are three other monasteries that were also attacked by the terrorists.”
As U Thiri Dhamma said the word “terrorist”, translators and ministry of defence handlers interjected to correct him as he seemingly drifted off-script. He meant “violator”, they explained but his English was not good.