Myanmar junta chief urges economic action as Western pressure grows

A convoy of cars makes its way during the funeral for protester Thet Naing Win, who died from a gunshot wound while taking part in a demonstration against the military coup last week, in Mandalay February 23, 2021. — AFP pic
A convoy of cars makes its way during the funeral for protester Thet Naing Win, who died from a gunshot wound while taking part in a demonstration against the military coup last week, in Mandalay February 23, 2021. — AFP pic

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YANGON, Feb 23 — The leader of Myanmar’s junta has called for energetic efforts to revive an ailing economy, state media reported today, as Western countries considered more sanctions to press the generals to shun a violent crackdown on democracy protests.

The call for focus on the economy came after a general strike shut businesses yesterday and huge crowds gathered to denounce the military’s February 1 coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, despite a warning from authorities that confrontation could get people killed.

The Group of 7 rich countries today condemned intimidation and oppression of those opposing the coup. “Anyone responding to peaceful protests with violence must be held to account,” group foreign ministers said in a joint statement.

Protesters gathered again today though in much smaller numbers. There were also small marches in favour of the military, media reported.

There were no reports of violence.

Military chief General Min Aung Hlaing, in a meeting with his ruling council yesterday, called for state spending and imports to be cut and exports increased.

“The council needs to put its energy into reviving the country’s ailing economy. Economic remedy measures must be taken,” state media quoted him a saying.

The army seized power after alleging fraud in November 8 elections, detaining her and much of the party leadership. The electoral commission dismissed the fraud complaints.

The crisis raises the prospect of isolation and investor jitters just as the Covid-19 pandemic has undermined consumption and choked off tourism.

Min Aung Hlaing did not link the protests directly to economic problems but said the authorities were following a democratic path in dealing with them and police were using minimal force, such as rubber bullets, state media reported.

The security forces have shown more restraint compared with earlier crackdowns against people who had pushed for democracy during almost half a century of direct military rule.

Even so, three protesters have been shot and killed. The army has said one policeman died of injuries sustained during the protests.

The military has accused protesters of provoking violence but UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said the millions who marched yesterday in a “breathtaking” turnout showed they were prepared to face up to military threats.

“The generals are losing their power to intimidate and with it, their power. It is past time for them to stand down, as the people of Myanmar stand up,” Andrews said on Twitter.

Indonesian plan

The European Union said it was considering sanctions that would target businesses owned by the army, but the bloc ruled out any curtailing its trade preferences to avoid hurting poor workers.

“We are not prepared to stand by and watch,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in Brussels yesterday.

Singapore’s central bank said it had not found significant funds from Myanmar in banks in Singapore but warned them to remain vigilant to any transactions with companies and individuals subject to sanctions.

The United States imposed sanctions on two more members of the junta and warned it could take more action. It had already placed sanctions on Myanmar’s acting president, several military officers and three companies in the jade and gems sector.

Britain, Germany and Japan have also condemned the violence and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the military to stop repression.

Myanmar has in the past been unswayed by sanctions and denounced what it called interference.

Giant neighbour China, which has traditionally taken a softer line with Myanmar, said any international action should contribute to Myanmar’s stability, promote reconciliation and avoid complicating the situation, media reported.

Indonesia was pushing South-east Asian partners to support a plan to keep the junta to its promise of holding new elections, with monitors to ensure they are fair, sources familiar with the proposal said.

But that would fall short of protester demands for the immediate release of Suu Kyi and recognition of the November polls. Hundreds gathered outside Indonesia’s embassy in Yangon to voice their opposition.

One protester put up a sign saying: “We don’t need another election!! Respect our votes.”

Today, an Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman said a new election was not Indonesia’s position. — Reuters

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