© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Myanmar celebrates 76th anniversary of the founding of its national army
(Reuters) – Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing will attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Indonesia on April 24, a Thai foreign ministry spokesman said on Saturday, for his first known foreign trip since he staged a Feb. 1 coup.
Myanmar has been in upheaval since Min Aung Hlaing ousted an elected government led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, with security forces killing 728 people, according to an activist group tally, in an attempt to stamp out protests.
Neighbours have been trying to encourage talks between the rival sides in Myanmar to resolve the crisis but the military has shown little willingness to engage with them or talk to the ousted government.
Several leaders of the 10-member ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, had confirmed their attendance at the meeting in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, including Min Aung Hlaing, the Thai spokesman, Tanee Sangrat, said.
A spokesman for the Myanmar junta did not answer calls seeking comment.
Myanmar’s ousted government is likely to decry the junta chief’s participation in the meeting.
Pro-democracy politicians, including ousted members of parliament, announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) on Friday, including Suu Kyi and leaders of the anti-coup protests and ethnic minorities.
The NUG says it is the legitimate political authority. It has called for international recognition and for ASEAN to reject Min Aung Hlaing’s participation in the meeting and to invite it instead.
A representative of the NUG was not immediately available for comment.
Earlier on Saturday, the junta released 23,184 prisoners from jails across the country under a New Year amnesty, a Prisons Department spokesman said, though few if any democracy activists arrested since the coup were thought to be among them.
Saturday is the first day of the traditional New Year in Myanmar and the last day of a five-day holiday that is usually celebrated with visits to Buddhist temples and rowdy water throwing and partying in the streets.
Pro-democracy activists called for the cancellation of the festivities this year and instead for people to focus on a campaign to restore democracy.
Suu Kyi is among 3,141 people arrested in connection with the coup, according to a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group.
“These detainees are mostly from before Feb. 1 but there are also some who were imprisoned after,” Prisons Department spokesman Kyaw Tun Oo told Reuters by telephone.
Asked if any of those being freed might have been detained in connection with the protests against military rule, he said he did not have details of the amnesties.
While the military was freeing the thousands of prisoners, it was also seeking 832 people on warrants in connection with the protests, the AAPP said.
Among them are 200 people, including several internet celebrities, actors and singers who have spoken out against the coup, wanted on a charge of encouraging dissent in the armed forces, which can carry a three-year jail term.
Two of them, the married couple of film director Christina Kyi and actor Zenn Kyi, were detained at the airport in the main city of Yangon on Saturday as they were trying to leave on a flight to Bangkok, the Irrawaddy news site reported.
The NUG’s vice president, Duwal Sheila, an ethnic Kachin lawyer, said in a New Year message the road to replacing military rule with democracy would be rough.
“We pledge to continue working with all ethnic peoples to overthrow the military dictatorship and establish a new federal democracy,” he said.
Protesters took to the streets in the second city of Mandalay in support of the NUG, media reported.
The coup has also triggered clashes between the army and ethnic minority insurgent groups in the north and east.
On Saturday, fighters from the Kachin Independence Army attacked an air base in the north with rockets, one of which hit a nearby village house, injuring one person, the Mizzima news agency reported.
Suu Kyi faces various charges including violating an official secrets act that could see her jailed for 14 years. Her lawyers dismiss the charges.
The military has defended its coup with accusations of fraud in a November election won by Suu Kyi’s party, though the election commission dismissed the objections
The junta has said it will hold a new election within two years and hand power to the winner.