National League for Democracy stalwart U Win Htein has rejected Tatmadaw claims to have lawfully taken power and called on the public to oppose the military coup.
The Tatmadaw’s seizure of power occurred because the commander-in-chief had given “priority to power and his personal desire” over the “best interests of the country”, National League for Democracy patron U Win Htein told journalists in Nay Pyi Taw this morning.
“Senior General Min Aung Hlaing detained President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who are elected by the people and given a mandate by the people. He did it without thinking of what is right and wrong,” said Win Htein, 80, a former Tatmadaw officer, political prisoner and former NLD central executive committee member.
“I feel pity for him,” he said of the Tatmadaw chief.
Win Htein said that as the patron of the NLD he was also likely to be detained and told the journalists, “Consider yourself very lucky that you can meet me now.”
He expressed concern that the coup d’etat could exacerbate the economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic, and noted that the national vaccination had just begun.
“Staging a coup at the moment shows they are not wise and are narrow-minded,” he said. “I am 80 years old. I experienced the coup of General Ne Win in 1962 … Myanmar’s economy suffered for 26 years after his coup.”
Win Htein said the NLD had won another landslide in the November general election because of the “massive” support of the people, and he contradicted the Tatmadaw’s claims to have seized power in accordance with the 2008 Constitution.
“The constitution is invalid now; they have abolished the law they have written,” he said of the military-drafted charter.
Win Htein said it needed to be asked if the Tatmadaw “staged the coup for the country and race, or their own interest”.
Win Htein said that when he served in the military under such officers as General San Aye, General Thura Tin Oo, who is also an NLD patron, and General Kyaw Htin, “the Tatmadaw was an organisation loved by the people and an organisation that stood for the people”.
“Everyone knows that the Tatmadaw was not loved by the people after the 1988 coup … and I can see the Tatmadaw will go into disrepute because of the coup today,” he said. “I am so sorry for the Tatmadaw.”
“We never reviled the Tatmadaw,” he said on behalf of the NLD. “But the leaders of the Tatmadaw have taken it in the wrong direction, I believe.”
Win Htein also called on the people to oppose the coup. “What I want to say right now, while I still have time, is that everyone in the country should oppose as much as they can the actions they are seeking to take us back to zero by destroying our government,” he said.
Win Htein stressed that he was not calling for violent opposition to the coup, but non-violent civil disobedience as advocated by Aung San Suu Kyi during the long years of the struggle for democracy.
He mentioned that the veterans of the struggle, including himself, Aung San San Kyi and Win Myint, were in their seventies or eighties and would eventually be replaced by younger party members.
“But the momentum of activities supporting democracy in Myanmar will never be stopped. I hope our second generation will keep trying,” he said.
Win Htein’s call on the public to resist the coup were broadly in line with a letter purportedly from Aung San Suu Kyi that was posted to her “Chair NLD” Facebook page later in the day.
It’s unclear whether the state counsellor typed the letter herself, but a handwritten message on the letter signed in Win Htein’s name insisted they were her words. Although some expressed doubt over whether the letter was real, party information officer U Kyi Toe’s Facebook account reposted it along with a note insisting it was genuine.
In the letter, Aung San Suu Kyi refers to a will that she wrote in 1989, the first time the military arrested her, in which she decreed that if she dies, her house shall be turned into a museum – apparently suggesting her life could now be under threat. The letter ends with a message urging the people not to bow down to the coup and to object to it.
This evening, Kyi Toe also confirmed the whereabouts of the state counsellor and other senior government and NLD officials, saying they were being detained in their homes in Nay Pyi Taw.
A ‘constitutional’ coup
A statement attributed to U Myint Swe, who the Tatmadaw promoted to “interim president” after arresting President Win Myint early this morning, said the coup was justified by the Union Election Commission’s failure to address the military’s claims of rampant fraud in the November election, which had endangered the “sovereignty” of the people.
The statement from Myint Swe, an ex-Tatmadaw general who had been appointed by the military in 2016 as one of two vice presidents in the NLD government, declared that “legislative, judicial and executive power” had been transferred to the “Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services”, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
The role played by Myint Swe appeared to be part of an attempt by the Tatmadaw to justify its takeover as a lawful transfer of power under article 417 of the constitution, which allows the military chief to take over in the event of an emergency that threatens Myanmar’s sovereignty, or that could “disintegrate the Union” or “national solidarity”. This constitutional clause requires that the president declare the state of emergency – a task that fell to Myint Swe after President Win Myint was incapacitated by his arrest.
A later statement from the commander-in-chief reiterated that the election commission and government were to blame for the coup for refusing the military’s demands. It also said the election commission would be “reconstituted” after which it would launch a probe into the voter lists used in the November poll, which Tatmadaw fraud claims have centred on, and that efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and resolve the peace process under the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement would be expedited.
“When these tasks have been completed,” the statement said, a “free and fair multiparty election will be held” and power handed to the winning party.
Ko Chan Lian, executive director of Yangon-based election monitoring group Hornbill Organization, condemned the military coup and said it had “ruined” Myanmar’s democratic transition.
“The election commission had some shortcomings,” he told Frontier, but added that regardless of whether the military’s electoral fraud claims were credible, “the outcome [of the November election] could not be changed”.
Eleven domestic election monitoring groups, including Hornbill, said in a joint statement on January 29, three days before the coup, that the results of the election reflected the will of the majority of voters. They called on all political parties and the Tatmadaw to respect the result and to collaborate in ensuring a peaceful transition to a new government.
Quiet streets and heightened security
Despite some senior NLD officials urging the public to object to the coup, the streets of Yangon were mostly quiet once the panic-buying of the morning subsided. By the early afternoon, most phone and internet services had been restored, but many businesses remained closed throughout the day, including banks and shops that had sold out of rice and other basic commodities.
In much of the city there was no visible military or police presence at all, but in downtown Yangon – scene of mass protests in 1988 and 2007 – the security forces were taking no chances.
Frontier observed around a dozen trucks full of heavily armed riot police stationed on Sule Pagoda Road, right at the city centre.
Four military trucks were also visible inside the compound of nearby City Hall, which earlier in the day was secured and cordoned off by security forces.
A louder presence were the trucks of pro-military supporters, including some Buddhist monks, who travelled around the city carrying Myanmar flags and chanting slogans through loudspeakers.
Several cases were reported of pro-military supporters targeting media personnel, including a freelancer for a Japanese news agency who was left with a bloodied head.
In Nay Pyi Taw, six trucks of soldiers and an armoured personnel carrier were also deployed in the afternoon to the municipal guesthouse where newly elected MPs are still being held. Heavy security was also seen around the nation’s parliament, which had been scheduled to meet today for the first time since the election.