The leader of Myanmar’s ruling junta said on Saturday the military will protect the people and strive for democracy, as protesters called for a huge show of defiance against last month’s coup despite chilling warnings they risked being shot.
After presiding over a military parade in the capital, Naypyitaw, to mark Armed Forces Day, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing reiterated a promise to hold elections, without giving any timeframe.
“The army seeks to join hands with the entire nation to safeguard democracy,” the general said in a live broadcast on state television, adding that authorities also sought to protect the people and restore peace across the country.
“Violent acts that affect stability and security in order to make demands are inappropriate.”
Troops killed four more people in demonstrations on Friday, taking the number of deaths to 328 in the crackdown that has followed the coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on Feb. 1, according to a tally kept by an activist group.
In an ominous warning on Friday evening, state television said: “You should learn from the tragedy of earlier ugly deaths that you can be in danger of getting shot to the head and back.”
The warning did not specifically say that security forces had been given shoot-to-kill orders. The junta has previously tried to suggest that some fatal shootings have come from within the crowds.
But it showed the military’s determination to prevent any disruptions around Armed Forces Day, which commemorates the start of the resistance to Japanese occupation in 1945 that was orchestrated by Suu Kyi’s father, the founder of the military.
Aung San, considered the father of the nation, was assassinated in 1947.
Pro-democracy protesters had gathered on Saturday in the main cities of Yangon and Mandalay and in towns in Karen state bordering Thailand, news reports said.
Min Aung Hlaing said the army had to seize power because of “unlawful acts” by Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, adding that some party leaders had been found guilty of corruption and legal action was being taken against them.
Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most popular civilian politician, remains in detention at an undisclosed location. Many other figures in her party are also being held in custody.
In a week that saw international pressure on the junta ramped up with new U.S. and European sanctions, Russia’s deputy defenSe minister, Alexander Fomin, attended the parade.
On Friday, Fomin met senior junta leaders and offered support for the military.
“Russia is a true friend,” Min Aung Hlaing said. There were no signs of other diplomats at an event that is usually attended by scores of officials from foreign nations.
An anti-junta group set up by deposed lawmakers, CRPH, is working to end the military dictatorship and set up a national unity government, its acting vice president, Mahn Win Khaing, said in a post on Facebook.
Protesters have taken to the streets almost daily since the coup that derailed Myanmar’s slow transition to democracy.
Activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) counted at least 328 protesters who have been killed in the weeks of unrest. Its data shows that around a quarter of them died from shots to the head, raising suspicions they were targeted for killing.
Reuters could not independently verify the numbers killed.
A military spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The United Nations’ special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said the military had turned against its own citizens.
“Women, youth and children have been among those killed,” she said in a statement.
Defense ties between Russia and Myanmar have grown in recent years with Moscow providing training to thousands of soldiers as well as selling arms to the military.
Russia’s support for the junta is also important as it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and along with China, which has also refrained from criticism, can block potential U.N. actions.
Fomin’s visit took place after the United States, Britain and the European Union imposed new sanctions on groups and individuals linked to the coup.
The World Bank on Friday slashed its forecast for Myanmar’s economy to a 10% contraction in 2021 from the growth expected previously.
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