Myanmar junta extends state of emergency, likely delaying polls
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Myanmar's military authorities announced a six-month extension to a state of emergency on Wednesday, likely delaying elections the junta had pledged to hold by August as they battle anti-coup fighters across the country.
The Southeast Asian country has been in turmoil since the army's power grab in 2021, and a subsequent crackdown on dissent has sparked fighting across swathes of the nation while tanking the economy.
On the second anniversary of the putsch, state media said the National Defence and Security Council had agreed to junta chief Min Aung Hlaing's request to prolong the state of emergency that was declared when the generals toppled Aung San Suu Kyi's government.
The "state of emergency will be extended for another six months starting from February 1", Acting President Myint Swe was quoted as saying. "Sovereign power of the state has been transferred to the commander in chief again."
The military would always be the "guardian of the interests of the state and people... under whichever government comes," Min Aung Hlaing said, according to state broadcaster MRTV. "Our government will work to hold elections in every part of the country so as the people will not lose their democratic right."
Extending the state of emergency also pushes back the date by which elections must be held, according to the country's constitution.
The announcement came as streets emptied and shops closed across Myanmar in protest on the anniversary and Western powers launched a fresh broadside of sanctions against the generals.
Streets in the commercial hub Yangon were largely deserted from late morning, AFP correspondents said, after activists called for people across the country to close businesses and stay indoors.
Roads leading to the famous Shwedagon pagoda -- a Buddhist shrine that dominates Yangon's skyline and is usually thronged by worshippers -- were largely deserted.
Most buses on roads elsewhere in the city were empty and there was a heavy security presence.
It was similarly quiet in the second city of Mandalay, a resident told AFP.
Local media images also showed empty streets in the eastern city of Mawlamyine.
Around 200 supporters of the military marched through Yangon's historic downtown in the early afternoon, escorted part of the way by soldiers, correspondents said.
Around 400 protesters gathered outside Myanmar's embassy in Bangkok, some chanting slogans against the military and holding portraits of Suu Kyi.
'Unrest and violence'
The extension shows "Min Aung Hlaing only cares about holding tight to power, and the rights and suffering of the Burmese people be damned," Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told AFP, using a former name for the country.
"A clear admission of the SAC's failure to contain the civil war their coup ignited," independent analyst David Mathieson told AFP, using an acronym for the junta's official name.
"They're losing control to even conduct a sham election."
The military justified its February 1, 2021, power grab with unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud in elections that democracy figurehead Suu Kyi's party won in a landslide.
The state of emergency was due to expire at the end of January and the military had been widely expected to announce on Wednesday that it would prepare for the polls.
But on Tuesday the junta-stacked National Defence and Security Council met to discuss the state of the nation and concluded it "has not returned to normalcy yet".
Junta opponents, including anti-coup "People's Defence Forces" and a shadow government dominated by lawmakers from Suu Kyi's party, had tried to seize "state power by means of unrest and violence", the military's information team said in a statement.
'We lost everything'
The United States, Canada and Britain announced a new round of sanctions on the anniversary, targeting members of the junta and junta-backed entities.
Myanmar's former colonial ruler Britain targeted, among others, companies supplying aviation fuel to the military and enabling its "barbaric air raiding campaign in an attempt to maintain power".
Australia also announced its first sanctions, aimed at 16 members of the junta "responsible for egregious human rights abuses" and two sprawling, military-controlled conglomerates.
More than 2,900 people have been killed in the military's crackdown on dissent since it seized power and more than 18,000 have been arrested, according to a local monitoring group.
The junta recently wrapped up a series of closed-court trials of Suu Kyi, jailing its longtime enemy for a total of 33 years in a process rights groups have slammed as a sham.
"The main wish for 2023 is we want freedom and to go back home," Thet Naung, an activist in northern Sagaing region, where the military and anti-coup fighters have regularly clashed, told AFP.
"We have gone through many difficulties. We wanted to be happy and live freely but we lost everything. We have spent most of our time in jungles and stayed away from cities."