Leaders of five of Myanmar’s ethnic political parties met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday to discuss what they felt was the imperative need to amend the country’s military-backed constitution, but agreed that the current electoral system should be maintained.
Leaders of the five parties from the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) and Aung San Suu Kyi also agreed that Myanmar should work toward eventually adopting a federal political system that would give more autonomy to ethnic states.
”We discussed that we all have responsibilities to amend the 2008 constitution before the 2015 election, and we must do this,” Aye Thar Aung from the Arakan League for Democracy, one of the five UNA parties, said after the meeting at Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence in Yangon.
It was Aung San Suu Kyi’s first meeting with the UNA since her release from house arrest more than two years ago.
Aung San Suu Kyi discussed the possibility of beginning constitutional amendments with the most contradictory and problematic parts of the charter first, saying that she would cooperate with the military, which dominates parliament, over the issue.
“She said that the whole 2008 constitution should be amended, but some sections in the constitution contradict each other and those sections should be amended first,” Aye Thar Aung said.
Aung San Suu Kyi , who leads the popular National League for Democracy (NLD), pledged to work with MPs representing the military in parliament in efforts to amend the constitution, according to Mon Democracy Party representative Naing Ngwe Thein.
The constitution was framed under the previous military junta. It does not give Myanmar’s ethnic groups sufficient representation in the government, reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military personnel, and bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.
The Nobel laureate also told the ethnic group leaders that she favors a federal political system in the country, which is embracing democratic reforms under President Thein Sein after nearly five decades of harsh military rule.
“She said Myanmar definitely needs the federal system, although she does not think it will happen immediately,” Aye Thar Aung said.
Many of Myanmar's ethnic minority groups have long aspired for a federal system of administration, citing a 1947 agreement in which Aung San Suu Kyi's father, independence hero General Aung San, pledged to devolve power to some of the larger ethnic groups.
A military coup in 1962 however scuttled their hopes, with the army concerned that federalism would lead to secession by the mostly resource-rich ethnic minority regions.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic parties also agreed that there was no need to amend the constitution to replace the country’s current winner-takes-all voting set-up with a proportional representation system ahead of 2015 elections, from which the opposition chief hopes to become the country's president.
“We also discussed how we shouldn’t use the proportional representation system for the election,” Naing Ngwe Thein said.
“If we follow this system, the ethnic representatives wouldn’t be able to get into parliament,” he said.
The UNA—which also includes the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, Zomi National Congress, and the Karen National Congress for Democracy—will back NLD’s stance on sticking with the current first-past-the-post system.
Under the system, voting is based on electoral constituencies being represented by a single legislative member who garners the most votes.
Several parties had in April introduced to the country's election body proposals for a proportional representation (PR) system that may result in each political group or party being represented in proportion to its actual voting strength in the electorate.
“The PR system is complicated,” according to Pu Cin Sian Thang from the Zomi National Congress.
“Even in the current voting system, there are many flaws. If we use the PR system, it would get worse.”
“We also discussed [and felt] that we do not need to change to the PR system and we should go with the current system for the next elections,” Aye Thar Aung said.
The UNA members also supported the NLD’s reform efforts, Naing Ngwe Thein said.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s reform program is moving forward step by step. It might take long, but we don’t reject it and we will wait and see [what it produces],” he said.
Reported by Zin Mar Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.