Myanmar President Thein Sein held rare talks Wednesday with dozens of political leaders to discuss upcoming elections and finalizing a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with ethnic armies, according to a minister from his office and a lawmaker who attended the meeting.
The closed-door talks with 42 representatives, including opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, was held at Thein Sein’s home in the capital Naypyidaw and comes ahead of high-level six-party talks on constitutional reform scheduled for Friday.
Myanmar president’s office spokesman Ye Htut told a press conference after the meeting that 48 leaders of various political parties and heads of government had been invited to the talks, but six were unable to attend, including commander in chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was traveling in Rakhine state.
Ye Htut said that during the meeting, the chairman of the government-appointed Union Election Commission (UEC), Tin Aye, pledged to work towards holding free and fair polls later this year.
The spokesman confirmed that six-party talks—consisting of Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Aung Hlaing, upper house speaker Khin Aung Myint, lower house speaker Shwe Mann and ethnic representative Aye Maung of the Arakan National Party—would be held April 10 at the president’s home.
Pu Zozam, chairman of the Chin National Party (CNP), told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Thein Sein had pushed for help in signing an official NCA between the government and more than a dozen armed ethnic groups following the inking of a final draft of the deal at the end of March.
“The president asked us to help and work together to sign a final NCA, as all leaders have already signed the draft,” he said.
“He also confirmed that he will host and take part in the six-party talks.”
Seats at the table
Bickering over the number of parties to be included in the discussions has stymied progress on the issue.
Aung San Suu Kyi had been holding out for four-way discussions among herself, Thein Sein, Shwe Mann and Min Aung Hlaing.
She wants amendments to the 2008 constitution to curb the political power of the military, which controls a quarter of the seats in parliament through appointment and holds an effective veto over charter reform, and to alter provisions that make her ineligible for the country’s presidency.
But after meeting with Thein Sein in January, she called for six-party talks that would also include Khin Aung Myint and a representative of the ethnic parties.
Aung San Suu Kyi told Reuters news agency over the weekend that the NLD would consider boycotting general elections planned for later this year if the country’s constitution, which blocks her from becoming president because her sons are foreign nationals, is not amended.
The charter, written by the former junta in 2008, also guarantees a quarter of seats for military delegates, allowing them to veto any proposed constitutional amendment.
Thein Sein had refused to hold four-party talks as well as six-party talks put forward by parliament, which would put the reform of Myanmar’s controversial 2008 constitution at the center of cease-fire negotiations with country’s armed ethnic groups.
Referendum in doubt
Some lawmakers on Wednesday expressed doubt over whether a referendum on changes to the charter could be held in May as scheduled, saying there is not enough time to factor in recommendations for amendments from enough members of the country’s parliament.
Saw Hla Tun of the parliament’s Draft Law Committee said that while the legislature’s Constitutional Amendment Committee had recently submitted its final recommendations to amend the charter, at least 20 percent of lawmakers would need to submit their own proposed changes for specific acts and articles before the vote could proceed.
“After parliament’s review of the recommendations to amend particular acts and articles, it will refer these recommendations to our committee and we will have to work on it,” he said.
“Shwe Mann has said the referendum will be held as scheduled in May. If we get the recommendations to amend particular acts and articles from 20 percent of MPs (members of parliament) soon, we will have enough time to work on them.”
Lawmaker Tin Maung Oo, a member of the Constitutional Amendment Committee, told RFA it was “impossible to hold the referendum in May,” suggesting that more time was needed before progressing to the vote.
Also on Wednesday, more than a dozen political parties endorsed adopting a controversial proportional representation (PR) electoral system for this year’s elections, in which the number of seats won by a party is proportional to the number of votes received.
At the end of a three-day hearing at the upper house of parliament attended by 18 political parties, 14 endorsed the system, according to lawmaker Thein Kyi, who is chairman of the National Political Alliance (NPA) party.
“We accept the PR system, as it can lead to unity between [Myanmar’s] 135 ethnic groups, despite their different viewpoints,” he said.
“The larger parties have an advantage in parliament under the current system.”
So far, 16 political parties have rejected the PR system, including the NLD and several ethnic parties.
The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is pushing for the PR system in a bid to prevent a highly likely landslide win by the NLD in the 2015 general elections, some reports have suggested.
Reported by Win Naung Toe, Kyaw Thu and Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.