Myanmar army plays down coup rhetoric as fears swirl

·3-min read

Myanmar's military on Saturday vowed to abide by the country's constitution, in an apparent backtracking after its commander-in-chief spurred fears of a coup when he suggested the charter could be repealed.

The army has for weeks alleged widespread irregularities in November's election, won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling National League for Democracy (NLD).

Tensions were ramped up Tuesday when a military spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of a coup.

A day later, army chief General Min Aung Hlaing -- arguably the most powerful person in Myanmar -- said revoking the 2008 junta-scripted constitution could be "necessary" under certain circumstances.

His comments -- translated into English and published in the army-run Myawady newspaper -- sent shockwaves through the nascent democracy, which is only a decade out of the grips of a 49-year military dictatorship.

On Saturday the army released a statement claiming its commander-in-chief had been misunderstood, though the statement did not directly address fears of an imminent coup.

"Some organisations and media defined the speech of the Commander-in-Chief as they liked... without respecting the full text of the speech," said an English translation of the statement.

"The Tatmadaw is abiding by the constitution... (and) will perform its tasks within the frame of enacted law while safeguarding it," it added, referring to the army by its official Burmese name.

The last time the country saw its constitution revoked was in 1988, when the military reinstated a junta after a popular uprising.

The general's comments on the constitution drew alarm from more than a dozen foreign missions and the United Nations, while smaller political parties called for a resolution between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military.

The country's highest Buddhist authority even stepped in, with senior monks of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee issuing a statement late Friday calling for negotiations to prevail "instead of heated arguments".

- 'Narrow path to democracy' -

The military is alleging 10 million cases of voter fraud in November's polls, and is demanding the election commission release the electoral roll for cross-checking.

Their call has been taken up by military supporters, hundreds of whom turned up Saturday outside Yangon's famed Shwedagon pagoda to protest against the election commission.

They were joined by hardline nationalist monks who carried banners rejecting "interference from foreign countries".

Meanwhile, some neighbourhoods in Yangon saw the NLD's signature red flags go up on windows and adorn store fronts -- an apparent show of support for Aung San Suu Kyi's government.

The commission denied fraud on Thursday, reaffirming that the polls were free, fair and conducted with transparency, though it conceded there were "flaws" in the voter lists.

Thant Myint-U, a historian and author of "The Hidden History of Burma", said "the priority now is protecting Myanmar's incredibly narrow path to democracy".

"But equally important is finding a resolution to the present crisis that doesn't harm prospects for future peace," he told AFP.

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