Burma’s President Thein Sein hosted opposition leaders, ministers for ethnic affairs, ethnic representatives, parliamentary speakers and military leaders for talks at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw on Monday.
Attendees included Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Gen. Soe Win; chairperson of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi; and leaders of Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Chin, Mon, Arakan and Shan ethnic-based political parties, as well as state- and regional-level ethnic affairs ministers, totalling 48 participants.
In his opening speech, Thein Sein said that the meeting had been organised to realise proposals “in the interests of the people”, adding that representatives of the various groups were invited because “it is necessary to include the viewpoints of the majority of national races”.
The Burmese president spoke about the need for political dialogue to overcome differences so that the country could become a “union based on flourishing democracy and federalism”.
While changes in government rhetoric and an increased dialogue with ethnic groups in Burma has been welcomed by some observers, concerns remain about the reconciliation process. Armed conflict is still raging in some areas of the country, including Kachin and Shan states.
Some ethnic leaders vented frustration about the pace of change.
Dr Manam Tuja, the chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party, said, “There may be a degree of international recognition on the [reform] effort but for the country’s population there has been no progress at the pace they expected. In my opinion, the main challenges faced by the government are due to a group of people who do not want reform.”
Zaw Aye Maung, the Arakan ethnic affairs minister of Rangoon Division, told DVB that he spoke in the meeting of the need to prioritise political dialogue ahead of the ceasefire – not after.
“I believe successful dialogue will help to implement the ceasefire,” he said, adding that “when we say peace, we should not only look at peace between the government and armed groups, but also at situations like the unrest in Arakan State.”
A quadripartite meeting that took place on 30 October of last year – held to discuss democratic reforms, constitutional amendments and the ongoing peace process – was met with a lukewarm response from some at the time, according to Information Minister Ye Htut.
“The four parties at the meeting were each given 10 minutes to express their thoughts, and in the end the representatives were asked if there were any general issues they wanted to discuss. This was not the kind of quadripartite meeting we envisioned,” said Suu Kyi, who was in attendance.
Thein Sein said that this week’s negotiations were “held in accordance with the agreement reached among the participants at the 30 October meeting”.
Regarding the issue of constitutional reform – said by some to be the acid test of Burma’s transition – he remarked that, “We always keep in mind that a state constitution should be amended at an appropriate time … Constitutional amendments will be based on the results of political dialogues and the peace process, and in line with the 2008 Constitution.”
However, some feel the need for urgency regarding statutory reform, and pointed to previous commitments by Thein Sein.
Saw Tun Aung Myint, the chairperson of Kayin People’s Party and Karen Ethnic Affairs Minister of Rangoon division, told DVB: “I suggested to urgently facilitate talks for constitutional reform as the general election is drawing closer, and to implement the nationwide ceasefire as soon as possible. Let’s make it happen on 12 February as per the president’s wishes.”
He also spoke of the need for “ethnic affairs ministers and political parties to ensure free and fair elections; and for them to also be included in campaigns promoting religious harmony” at all levels.
However, after attending the meeting, Suu Kyi was critical of this idea, saying at a press conference that the meeting “included Ethnic Affairs ministers who are essentially part of the government’s cabinet. I cannot fathom as to why these individuals were invited to a meeting that is supposed to be between the government and political parties.”
A previously planned meeting, scheduled to bring together Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein, Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, house speakers Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint, and Arakanese politician Aye Maung as a representative of ethnic political parties, was abruptly cancelled at the end of last year.
Speaking on Monday, Suu Kyi said “This meeting will not make up for the [proposed] sexpartite dialogue. It did not resemble the sexpartite dialogue.”