(Reuters) - Protesters marked the two-year anniversary of Myanmar's military coup with a "silent strike" in major cities and rallies overseas on Wednesday 1 February 2023, as exiled civilian leaders vowed to end what they called the army's "illegal power grab".
The Southeast Asian country's top generals led a putsch on February 2021 after five years of tense power-sharing under a quasi-civilian political system created by the military.
The overthrow of the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi derailed a decade of reform, international engagement and economic growth, while leaving a trail of upended lives in its wake.
Myanmar has been in chaos since the coup, with a resistance movement fighting the military on multiple fronts after a bloody crackdown on opponents that saw Western sanctions re-imposed.
Myanmar's military is due to issue a statement on Wednesday that may decide whether to extend a state of emergency, ahead of a promised poll this year that critics call a sham aimed at retaining power in the country.
The army's National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) met on Tuesday 31 January 2023 where it discussed the situation in Myanmar including the actions of the National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow administration formed by opponents, and the so-called people's defence force fighting the army, state media reported.
"The unusual circumstances of the country whereby they are making attempts to seize state power in an insurgent and terror-like ways [was discussed]," the military-owned Myawaddy media said on Tuesday.
Myawaddy reported the NDSC planned to release the "necessary statement"" on 1 February, without giving further details.
A telephone call to a military spokesperson seeking comment was not answered.
Myanmar's military took power after complaining of fraud in a November 2020 general election won by Suu Kyi's party. Election monitoring groups found no evidence of mass fraud.
The junta, led by Min Aung Hlaing, says its crackdown is a legitimate campaign against "terrorists".
It declared a state of emergency for a year when it took power and has since extended it twice for six months, with the latest phase expiring on Wednesday.
The constitution allows for two extensions, though some sections appear to give more flexibility on the issue.
"For two years, the people of Myanmar have stood together, their heads held high, and steadfastly resisted Min Aung Hlaing and the Myanmar military's attempt to overthrow the elected government," the NUG said in a statement.
The NUG added that "together with ethnic allies, who have opposed the military for decades, we will end the military's illegal power grab."
Protests in Bangkok
In the main commercial cities of Yangon and Mandalay, images on social media showed deserted streets in what coup opponents said was a silent protest against the junta.
In Thailand, hundreds of protesters held a rally outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, while activists also staged a protest in the Philippine's capital, Manila.
"We are the people, we have the future," protesters in Bangkok chanted. "The revolution must prevail."
The United States (US) and allies including the United Kingdom (UK), Australia and Canada imposed further sanctions on Myanmar on Tuesday, with curbs on energy officials and junta members, among others.
In Japan, a major donor and investor before the coup, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno on Wednesday urged the military government to restore the democratic political system.
The junta has pledged to hold an election in August this year. State media recently announced tough requirements for parties to contest, a move that critics say could sideline the military's opponents and cement its grip on politics.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party was decimated by the coup, with thousands of its members arrested or jailed, including Suu Kyi, and many more in hiding.
It has described this year's planned election as "phoney" and said it would not acknowledge it. The election has also been dismissed as a sham by Western governments.
"You cannot have a free and fair election when you arrest, detain, torture and execute leaders of the opposition," United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews told reporters at the UN on Tuesday.
Some 1.2 million people have been displaced and over 70,000 have left the country, according to the UN, which has accused the military of war crimes and crimes against humanity.