Myanmar’s parliament adopted a motion Tuesday calling for urgent talks among six of Myanmar’s top political leaders—including President Thein Sein, military chief Min Aung Hlaing, and opposition chief Aung San Suu Kyi—on amending the country’s constitution in what is seen as a major reform move.
The high-level talks, that would also include the speakers of the two houses of parliament, Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint, and a representative from the ethnic parties, could be held as early as Friday.
The parliament motion seeking the emergency debate on changing the 2008 junta-backed charter was proposed by the powerful ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and was unanimously adopted by the legislature.
“The people expect their leaders to hold frequent debates as they want [reform] development as soon as possible,” Myint Tun, an MP from the USDP, told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the motion was adopted.
“While we are discussing amending the constitution, the six leaders need to talk … If all of the leaders are united, we will all follow suit. That’s why [I proposed the motion].”
Local media reported that if the proposal is approved by Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing, the six-leader meeting would be held on Friday.
Parliament is currently discussing recommendations made in a report submitted last month by the legislature’s constitutional amendment committee, but progress has stalled following opposition by military lawmakers to changing an article which effectively gives them a veto over charter reforms.
Shwe Mann, who heads the USDP, has said that any constitutional amendments would require a referendum in May after parliamentary approval.
But he said no changes would be implemented until after the general election late next year. A bill paving the way for the referendum was passed by parliament on Monday.
Follow the leaders
Myint Tun told RFA Tuesday that whether constitutional reform can progress “totally depends on the talks between the six leaders.”
“They all have enough experience—if they speak out their opinions, the people will understand,” he said, adding that if more voices are needed, additional stakeholders could be added to the talks at a later date.
Opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party lawmaker Win Myint agreed that the talks were a step in the right direction, but said that constitutional reform should already be under way in Myanmar, which has enacted sweeping democratic changes since Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power from the junta in 2011.
“The sooner they can talk, the better the situation of the people will become and the quicker we can achieve reconciliation,” he told RFA.
“But if we really want to bring development and peace to the people through a smooth democratic transition, we must prove it by working, not just talking.”
Ye Tun, a lawmaker with the ethnic Shan National Democratic Party (SNDP), said he was pleased that a decision had been made to include an ethnic representative in Friday’s talks.
“Some ethnic parties, including our party, have said that there must be an ethnic leader in the talks,” he told RFA, referring to a meeting between Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, Min Aung Hlaing, and NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which she proposed last year.
The four-way talks would have touched on ethnic issues, but not included an ethnic representative.
“Now we are talking about six-leader talks and I think it is better than four-leader talks,” Ye Tun said.
Myanmar’s ethnic groups—many of which had been embroiled in decades of civil war against the government—are negotiating a nationwide cease-fire agreement with the military and hope to have their political rights incorporated into a revamped charter.
Doubts on talks
While a majority of lawmakers supported the high-level talks, some expressed doubt that they would have much impact on pushing constitutional reforms forward.
“I don’t have high hopes for this [meeting] because I don’t think the president can persuade the commander in chief,” the Irrawaddy online journal quoted Phone Myint Aung, a lawmaker from the National Democratic Force, as saying.
“Why would [Myanmar’s military] allow for the change of article 436 when it would cost them opportunities?”
The military controls 25 percent of seats in parliament and can reject any proposed amendments because article 436 requires more than 75 percent of parliamentary representatives to approve any change.
The NLD and Myanmar’s 88 Generation students group collected nearly 5 million signatures during a campaign from May 27 to July 19 to press the USDP to remove the military's veto over charter changes.
Amending article 436 would pave the way for constitutional reforms, including to article 59(F) of the charter, which prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting the presidency in next year’s general elections because her two sons are British citizens.
Last week, most military lawmakers rejected amending articles 436 and 59(F).
Reported by Myo Thank Khine, Waiyan Moe Myint and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.