YANGON – Myanmar's coup leader used the country's Union Day holiday on Friday to call on people to work with the military if they want democracy, a request likely to be met with derision by protesters who are pushing for the release from detention of their country's elected leaders.
“I would seriously urge the entire nation to join hands with the Tatmadaw for the successful realization of democracy,” Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said using the local term for the military. “Historical lessons have taught us that only national unity can ensure the non-disintegration of the Union and the perpetuation of sovereignty,” he added.
In addition to the military commander's message published Friday in the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, the new junta also announced it would mark Union Day by releasing thousands of prisoners and reducing other inmates’ sentences.
Min Aung Hlaing's Feb. 1 coup ousted the civilian government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and prevented recently elected lawmakers from opening a new session of Parliament. It reversed nearly a decade of progress toward democracy following 50 years of military rule and has led to widespread protests in cities around the country.
The military has said it was forced to step in because Suu Kyi’s government failed to properly investigate allegations of fraud in November elections, though the election commission has said there is no evidence to support those claims.
The U.N.’s top human rights body opened an urgent session on Friday to discuss the coup, while on Thursday the U.S. announced fresh sanctions targeting Myanmar's top military officials.
Recent rallies against the coup — now daily occurrences in Myanmar’s two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay — have drawn people from all walks of life, despite an official ban on gatherings of more than five people. Factory workers and civil servants, students and teachers, medical personnel and people from LGBTQ communities, Buddhist monks and Catholic clergy have all come out in force.
Thousands of protesters, including Myanmar celebrities, demonstrated outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon on Friday to criticize what they said was Beijing's failure to condemn the coup.