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

(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 organize 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 neighbors 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)

Explainer: Israel’s election – will Netanyahu survive?

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote next week for the second time in less than six months in an election that could see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a record fifth term – or end his decade-long dominance of Israeli politics.

He faces new and formidable challengers to his reign and, after the vote, possible criminal charges in three corruption cases. Recent polls have shown Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with the centrist Blue and White. They also show that neither party will secure an outright majority.

Here are a number of possible scenarios for how the Sept. 17 election could play out:

1. NETANYAHU WINS CONTROL OF MAJORITY OF KNESSET SEATS

Likud, together with the three right-wing and religious parties that have already declared their support for him, win a majority. With at least 61 lawmakers, Netanyahu would have relatively little trouble assembling a coalition similar to his outgoing cabinet, which supported his hawkish position on Iran and its 2015 nuclear deal and took a tough stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu has vowed to annex the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank – land the Palestinians want for a state. Such a move would delight Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

2. NO CLEAR WINNER AND NETANYAHU UNITY GOVERNMENT

After election day, Israel’s president consults with party leaders, asking them who they would support for prime minister. President Reuven Rivlin then asks the candidate he believes has the best chance to try and form a government. Netanyahu had his opportunity after the previous election in April but failed within the allocated 42 days. Rather than risk Rivlin appointing someone else to try, Netanyahu opted for a second election.

If he is again chosen, and again faces a stalemate, Netanyahu could go outside his bloc of right-wing and Jewish religious parties to form a so-called “national unity” government with those who are not his natural allies.

That would likely mean his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White. But Gantz has said he would not join a Netanyahu-led government, citing looming possible corruption indictments against Netanyahu. But Israeli politics are famously fluid, with ever-shifting fealties.

3. NO CLEAR WINNER, CENTER-RIGHT GOVERNMENT FORMED WITHOUT NETANYAHU

If Netanyahu again fails again to form a government, his own party could oust him to pave the way for a governing coalition between Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White, leaving Netanyahu in the political wilderness.

So far, no one in Likud has publicly broached such an idea. But that could change if Netanyahu again comes up short in coalition talks.

4. NETANYAHU CLEARLY DEFEATED, CENTER-LEFT GOVERNMENT

If the center and left-wing parties garner a majority in parliament, Gantz would head a government that could include his own party as well as the Labour Party and the newly-formed, environmentalist and secularist Democratic Camp, without needing an alliance with the right. It would be the first time since the 1990s that the left controlled parliament although, with an electorate shifting steadily toward the right, polls are not showing much likelihood of such a scenario. However, if a left-leaning coalition were ultimately formed, it would likely pursue peace talks with the Palestinians and be more open to concessions toward them as part of a lasting peace accord. It could also be more accepting of the nuclear deal struck between world powers and Iran.

5. NO CLEAR WINNER, NEW ELECTIONS

If no candidate can form a government, Israel would head to another snap election. But lawmakers are likely to do all they can to avoid a third this year.

HOW DOES THE ISRAELI ELECTION WORK?

The 120 Knesset seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists. In order to win seats, a party must get at least 3.25 percent of the national vote, equivalent to 4 seats. In the election in April, Likud and Blue and White came out on top, tied at 35 seats each. No one party has ever won an outright majority of the 120-seat Knesset (parliament) in 71 years of nationhood. This makes post-election coalitions the key to victory, and negotiations can stretch on for weeks.

WHO’S THE KINGMAKER?

According to the polls, it’s Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish ex-defense minister. Polls suggest the ultra-nationalist settler will double his seats from five to around 10. Lieberman, head of the Israel Beitenu party, has said he would only join a unity government comprised of Likud and Blue and White.

However, Lieberman is something of a wild card and has made unpredictable moves in the past.

WHAT ABOUT NETANYAHU’S LEGAL WOES?

Israel’s attorney-general, who has announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in three corruption investigations, is expected to decide whether to formally charge him by the end of 2019 after a pre-trial hearing in October, during which Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, can argue against indictment.

A majority in the Knesset could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution until the end of his term. Some of his prospective allies signaled they would support such a move, but it would probably draw a public outcry and legal challenges at the Supreme Court. Yet even if indicted, Netanyahu would not be under strict legal obligation to step down. His right-wing and religious allies are not expected to pressure him to resign, even if he is charged.

WHAT ABOUT TRUMP’S “DEAL OF THE CENTURY”?

Netanyahu has said he expects U.S. President Donald Trump to release his long-delayed plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace soon after the election. If Netanyahu wins and forms a right-wing cabinet, he would have a hard time getting his far-right allies to sign on to any peace plan involving concessions to the Palestinians. This could either destabilize the government or bury the Trump plan. A cabinet with Gantz in it would likely be more open to give-and-take negotiations with the Palestinians.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)