Myanmar's ruling military extended a state of emergency imposed on the country for another six months Wednesday, signaling it has no desire to end its prolonged rule as the country marked two years since a coup ousted its democratically elected government.
The announcement comes as the military continues to face resistance from those calling for the return of democracy in a brutal civil conflict that has seen thousands killed.
The third extension of the state of emergency will enable the junta to postpone until February next year the general election it had said would be held by this August.
Even if one were held, there are doubts about whether it would be a fair election as the military continues its attacks in regions where ethnic minority militias and pro-democracy citizens have taken up arms against it.
The highest body of Myanmar, the National Defense and Security Council, had declared a state of emergency following the coup. Initially meant to be in place for one year, it was twice extended by six months, with the latest having expired Tuesday.
The country's democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was the country's de facto leader until the Feb. 1, 2021, coup, has been tried on 19 charges, including corruption and election fraud, and now faces a total of 33 years in prison, essentially a life sentence for the 77-year-old Nobel Peace laureate.
In its Wednesday announcement, the council blamed resistance groups for destabilizing the country, saying they are trying to take over power through violent means.
"As these situations are unusual situations, the military commander-in-chief can complete his tasks only if the state of emergency is extended," its statement said.
The military chief and junta leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, told a council meeting earlier in the day that among 330 townships in the country, security is 100 percent under control only in 198 of them, while it is seriously contested in 65.
"The stability of the country is crucial to holding elections," he said.
The military-drafted Constitution stipulates that the emergency can be extended by up to two years under "normal" conditions.
As the nation marked the coup's second anniversary, pro-democracy forces had called on the public to hold "silent protests" by not going to work or engaging in economic activities.
The protests took place across Myanmar Wednesday, as photos posted on social media showed deserted streets in the largest city Yangon, as well as the second-largest city Mandalay and other cities.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which had been in power since 2016, won a landslide victory in the November 2020 general election. But the military alleged widespread voter fraud and toppled the NLD-led government, returning to power a decade after a democratic transition began.
Key members of Suu Kyi's political party, who managed to escape arrest, formed the outlawed National Unity Government, or NUG. The Myanmar government-in-exile has said it does not support the election that the junta is planning, saying it would be a sham.
Citizens' peaceful protests against the junta following the coup, which were met with harsh military crackdowns, have since morphed into NUG-supported armed resistance. In the past two years, more than 2,900 people from the anti-coup camp have been killed, with over 17,500 arrested, according to the activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, based in neighboring Thailand.
Last October, for example, up to 80 people were killed in an air attack by the military in northern Myanmar's Kachin State, according to local media reports.
The death toll of those supporting the military regime is also mounting, with at least 3,542 people accused of being military informants having been killed, according to a report released by the junta.
The figure does not include soldiers killed during clashes with armed citizens of the People's Defense Force or armed ethnic minority groups.
In his Jan. 4 Independence Day speech, Min Aung Hlaing said that his government is "striving" to hold the promised general election but stopped short of giving the date.
A military-appointed election commission has been training township officials on handling voter lists by using computer software, according to state media reports.
If the election is held, the pro-military USDP would win, essentially making electing any new government merely a reshuffle of the junta's ministers with Min Aung Hlaing continuing to rule the country, according to reports by local independent news outlets.
The NLD is the only opposition party strong enough to defeat the USDP. But the party, whose leaders are mostly in jail or exile, said in a statement Sunday it will "steadfastly object to the sham elections" planned by the military.
The NUG parallel government-in-exile has also vowed to annul the election results if it is held.
"As the junta has been cornered without any exit, it is now trying to create a way out by holding a sham election," the NUG's acting president Duwa Lashi La said in a recent speech, calling on all forces to step up the war against the military rule.
Ye Tun, a former parliamentarian from Shan State, told Kyodo News that the military will try its best to hold the election.
"However, the current security conditions are not yet suitable for political campaigns, rallies and voting," he said, adding that armed conflict could intensify as the election period approaches.
Meanwhile, sources familiar with Suu Kyi's situation said she is currently detained in a small building on the premises of a prison in the capital Naypyitaw. After taking over, the military put her under house arrest, moving her to the building in June last year.
The country has suffered an economic contraction since the coup, and some in the business sector are wondering whether the election, despite concerns over its credibility, could end the current military rule phase and lead to an economic recovery.
A 61-year-old man running a food and beverage business named Tun said he hopes the military would allow a return to some form of civilian rule after the election while acknowledging more bloodshed might occur during and after them.
"We can't do anything except try to hang on and hope that things will get better gradually after the election," he said.
The country's economy contracted by 6 percent in 2021, while inflation in 2022 is estimated to have reached 16 percent, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Diplomatic efforts have yielded little progress, with the military not following through on a five-point consensus forged with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in April 2021 with the aim of finding a peaceful solution to the country's political crisis.