A light for Myanmar's darkness

Democrats still free after a military coup have set up an alternative government, relying on the attraction of liberty and rights more than resistance to a violent regime.

Supporters of a new, democratic government in Myanmar, known as the "national unity government," or NUG, celebrate with balloons in Yangon, April 17.

The dictator of Myanmar, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, is set to meet with other leaders of Southeast Asia on Saturday in Indonesia. The gathering may be the only place where the man who led a Feb. 1 coup against an elected government might feel some legitimacy. Most of the region is run by autocrats.

His trip to faraway Jakarta is revealing in how quickly the people of Myanmar have rushed to set up a parallel government, one rooted not in the power of guns but in an unprecedented unity in guaranteeing equal rights for all citizens, including ethnic minorities.

The country’s long history of protests against military rule have largely failed. Now, instead of relying solely on resistance to the regime, democracy leaders have decided to set up “free zones” in border areas to provide both basic services and civic liberties.

Their reasoning: Living out universal ideals based on individual sovereignty might work better than opposing those who deny those ideals.

Or, as a spokesman for the alternative government told The Irrawaddy news outlet: “It is the people themselves who will decide history.”

The basis for this new government is 15 legislative members of the National League for Democracy, the party that won a vast majority of seats in a November election – a victory that irked the military’s long-held belief that it alone is the country’s most popular institution and guardian of unity. Many NLD leaders, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, have been arrested.

Joining with other pro-democracy forces, the group has acted as a legitimate legislature – although largely in hiding. In March, it wrote a new constitution. Then, on April 16, it set up an executive body known as the National Unity Government, with a prime minister overseeing various ministries. It has been described as “the most diverse and inclusive political body the country has seen.”

The small but growing government plans to set up TV broadcasts, create a banking system, and form a defense force out of hundreds of defectors from the regime’s ranks.

It is supporting hundreds of health workers who have boycotted military-run hospitals to work in “charity clinics.” It could also serve as a conduit for foreign assistance to the quarter million people who have been displaced by the military’s violence against its own people.

At the meeting in Indonesia, Malaysia plans to ask General Min to allow a humanitarian corridor to deliver aid. That would be a big step in foreign recognition of this parallel government. China has already put its approval on the group with a phone call to NLD leaders in early April.

Unarmed civilian rulers in these free zones may be no match against one of Southeast Asia’s largest armies. But an invisible force of attraction – the appeal of rights, freedom of conscience, and self-rule – has often tripped up dictators. This democratic group in Myanmar isn’t a shadow government. It is a light that may slowly lead a country of 54 million away from dark repression.


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