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Opponents of Myanmar coup form unity government, aim for 'federal democracy'

·4-min read
Protest against the military coup, in Yangon

(Reuters) -Opponents of Myanmar's junta announced a National Unity Government on Friday including ousted members of parliament and leaders of anti-coup protests and ethnic minorities, saying their aim was to end military rule and restore democracy.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the Feb. 1 coup that ousted a civilian government led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi which had held power for five years and was starting its second term after a landslide election victory in November.

People have taken to the streets day after day to demand the restoration of democracy, defying crackdowns by the security forces in which more than 700 people have been killed, according to a monitoring group.

At the same time, political leaders, including ousted members of parliament from Suu Kyi's party, have been trying to organise to show the country and the outside world that they and not the generals are the legitimate political authority.

"Please welcome the people's government," veteran democracy activist Min Ko Naing said in a 10-minute video address announcing the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG).

While setting out few positions, Min Ko Naing said the will of the people was the unity government's priority, while acknowledging the scale of the task at hand.

"We're trying to get this out from the roots so we have to sacrifice a lot," he said, referring to the junta.

A spokesman for the junta could not be reached for comment.

The generals justified their takeover with accusations of fraud in the November election won by Suu Kyi's party, though the election commission dismissed the objections.

One of the unity government's primary objectives will be to win international support and recognition.

"We are the democratically elected leaders of Myanmar," said the unity government's minister of international cooperation, Dr Sasa, who goes by one name.

"So if the free and democratic world rejects us that means they reject democracy."

International pressure has been building on the Myanmar military, particularly from Western governments that have imposed limited sanctions, though the generals have a long record of dismissing what they see as outside interference.

The unity government released a list of office holders including members of ethnic minorities and protest leaders, underlining the unity of purpose between the pro-democracy movement and autonomy-seeking minority communities, some of whom have battled the central government for decades.

CLAPPING IN THE DARK

Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the coup, was listed as state counsellor, the post she held in government.

The only known communication she has had with the outside world since the coup has been monitored video calls with her lawyers.

A spokesman for the democratic politicians said while they could not inform her about their new government, he was sure she was aware of what was happening.

Sasa told Reuters the objective was to end violence, restore democracy and build a "federal democratic union". The military, while playing lip service to the idea of federalism, has long seen itself as the core power holding the country together.

Unity government leaders said they intended to form a federal army and were in talks with ethnic minority forces.

The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of international experts including former United Nations officials, hailed the creation of the NUG as historic and said it was the legitimate government.

After darkness fell over Myanmar's biggest city Yangon, people clapped at their windows and chanted "our government", video posted by activists on Twitter showed. Some community groups reported the sound of explosions and gunfire shortly afterwards.

While the politicians were announcing the unity government, other opponents of military rule observed a "silent strike" staying home to mourn those killed or wearing black in small marches in half a dozen cities and towns, media reported.

Yangon's streets were largely deserted, residents said.

There were no immediate reports of violence at Friday's rallies.

The military has also been rounding up critics and state media announced arrest warrants for 20 doctors on charges of encouraging dissent in the armed forces. The junta is seeking more than 200 people, including several internet celebrities, actors and singers, on the same change.

The turmoil has alarmed Myanmar's neighbours in Southeast Asia who have been trying to encourage talks between the rival sides.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, will meet in Indonesia on April 24 to discuss the situation, Thai and Indonesian media reported.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was due to attend, a Thai broadcaster said, but the Jakarta Post said it had not been confirmed whether the summit would include representatives of the junta or the former government.

Sasa said ASEAN should not invite "murderer-in-chief" Min Aung Hlaing.

(Reporting by Reuters staff, writing by Robert Birsel; editing by Jane Wardell, Simon Cameron-Moore and Angus MacSwan)