Myanmar President Thein Sein has defended his decision to hold high-level meetings with military, political, and ethnic leaders as part of a new political process to overcome key national problems despite criticism from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has expressed concern over the lack of reforms.
Thein Sein met with more than a dozen figures on Oct. 31 in the capital Naypyidaw to discuss political reforms, the country’s armed ethnic conflict, constitutional impediments, and polls next year, saying it was the beginning of a series of meetings to step up reforms.
Besides himself and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the two other significant participants at last week’s talks were military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann.
Aung San Suu Kyi said the meeting achieved little, but Thein Sein emphasized during his monthly radio broadcast on Wednesday that it heralded a new culture of consultations that could “overcome the challenges facing all political forces.”
“As I have stated frequently, I hope that this meeting is the start of a new political culture where we talk to each other and embrace dialogue instead of resorting to confrontational approaches when trying to find solutions to overcome our common challenges,” he said.
Thein Sein stressed that the current dialogue to forge a nationwide cease-fire agreement between the government and armed ethnic rebel groups was an essential component of democratic reform.
In his radio address, he said that a nationwide cease-fire would require both sides to adhere to a code of conduct that would lower the number of clashes and reduce hostilities.
“The main benefit arising from this is the reduction of problems that have negatively impacted the lives and livelihoods of the people living in conflicted areas,” he said.
While the government is conducting the cease-fire talks, ethnic groups claim the military is staging incursions in rebel-controlled areas in Kachin, Shan, Mon, and Kayin states, raising doubts about the government’s commitment to the peace process.
Thein Sein also said his government is creating a plan to prevent future conflicts in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the site of deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims since 2012.
“We have to handle it delicately, owing especially to the heightened tensions and emotions between the two communities,” he said.
“That said, we will take full action allowed under the law against those who instigate conflict or commit crimes. I would also like to add that we are implementing precautionary measures to prevent future conflicts from occurring.”
Ahead of the talks last week, U.S. President Barack Obama called both Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi separately to urge them to make progress in the country’s reform process.
Aung San Suu Kyi said the high-level meeting was not a “practical” mechanism and should be confined to a smaller group for better results.
She said it was difficult to make much headway at a meeting involving so many parties, defending her previous proposal for just four-way talks among her, Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, and Min Aung Hlaing to break the stalemate on amending the country’s military-written constitution.
At a press conference on Wednesday at NLD headquarters, Aung San Suu Kyi pressed for urgent efforts to amend the constitution in a bid to remove the military’s veto power in parliament as part of reforms.
A parliamentary panel established to review proposed constitutional amendments said recently that the military lawmakers have refused to give up their powers under Article 436, which effectively gives them a veto over any constitutional amendments.
The ruling party and the military are also reluctant to amend Article 59(F) which prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because her two sons are not citizens of Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi said the military’s desire to maintain the status quo goes against the wishes of the people of Myanmar.
“I think that if the military respects the wishes of the people and genuinely wants to put the country on the right road, it is not right for them to ignore the wishes of the people,” she said.
“That is why I say that if one is really sincere for the welfare of the country and has the desire to move forward on the road to change in a calm and unswerving manner, meaningful discussions should not be avoided.”
Aung San Suu Kyi also said that the achievement of rule of law in Myanmar has to involve the administrative and judicial branches working in concert with the legislative branch.
“It must be accepted that the rule of law is not prevalent in the country. But I do see that the importance of the prevalence of the rule of law has now been accepted quite a bit in the country.”
Others concurred with Aung San Suu Kyi’s observation that Thein Sein’s move to hold talks with various groups in a bid to resolve national problems had accomplished little.
Aye Thar Aung, chairman of the Rakhine National Party, criticized Thein Sein for not reaching any decisions at last week’s meeting and ending it “in a vague manner.”
Ko Mya Aye, a leader of the 88 Generation students group, noted that the meeting produced no substantive results and stressed the need for all sides to work together to solve Myanmar’s problems.
He said part of the problem is that the military is under an erroneous impression that other groups want to eliminate it altogether from government by amending Article 436.
“We do not have the intention of building a democratic country by eliminating or removing the military or the present government or any organization or party or any armed ethnic group,” he said. “I think that there might be some misinformation on this matter.”
Colonel Khun Okkar, a member of the Nationwide Cease-fire Coordination Team, said that all the armed ethnic groups want a cease-fire pact, but that some minor issues need to be resolved, while there has also been backtracking on others already agreed upon.
“If we discuss these issues the next time we meet, then I believe that everything will be alright,” he said.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei and Ko Kyaw Htun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.