RANGOON — Burma’s Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann is calling for the direct involvement of Parliament in the ongoing peace negotiations between President Thein Sein’s government and ethnic rebel groups, while he also questions the progress that has been made in the talks.
“During the peace process negative consequences could arise if we try to achieve peace agreements that are not in accordance with law,” he said in Parliament on Tuesday. “It could affect the safety of citizens and cause the government to fail in its protection of citizens.”
Shwe Mann said it was important that lawmakers stay informed about the discussions between ethnic groups and Thein Sein’s peace negotiations team, which is led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min.
In an effort to underline his demand for more parliamentary involvement in the peace process, he took the unusual step of calling a meeting of the country’s National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) on Monday.
According to some lawmakers, Shwe Mann’s questions about Thein Sein’s actions signal that a political rivalry between the two leaders of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is developing.
Formed in 2011, the 11-member NDSC is chaired by Thein Sein and includes the speakers of both houses of Parliament, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and his deputy, two vice-presidents and four ministers. The council has a lead role in a State of Emergency, during which it has special powers, such as the authority to proclaim martial law.
Shwe Mann said the NDSC agreed on Monday that the government should reserve funds for supporting the peace process.
“Foreign donors have said they will support housing for the repatriation of refugees and create employment opportunities, only after peace prevails. But I told [the council] that we should not wait for outside support, we can use our own funding, because our people are in great difficulties,” he told journalists in Naypyidaw on Tuesday.
Last year, Thein Sein’s reformist government reached ceasefire agreements with 10 of the most important ethnic rebel groups, although it has failed to reach an agreement with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Burma, where fighting resumed in June 2011.
The international community has lauded the progress made by Thein Sein, Aung Min and presidential advisors from the government think-thank, the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC). Foreign governments have promised generous aid for the peace process and the MPC.
Naypyidaw has told diplomats that it will hold a national peace conference with all ethnic groups this month. The plan is surrounded by questions, however. A ceasefire agreement with the KIA remains elusive, while there has been little progress in discussions with other groups over their demands for political autonomy.
Shwe Mann questioned the government’s progress in the peace process. “I’ve been informed by some lawmakers and through public opinion that the peace talks have failed to achieve peace,” he told Parliament.
It was the first time that Shwe Mann, who is also chairman of the ruling USDP, which is affiliated with members of Burma’s former military regime, has openly questioned the government’s approach to the peace talks.
According to some, such public criticism signals a widening rift between the Lower House speaker and the president. The latter chaired the USDP until May 2 when Shwe Mann took over the party’s chairmanship.
It remains unclear which of the two USDP leaders will represent the party in the all-important 2015 national elections, which are supposed to be Burma’s first free and fair elections in decades.
An opposition lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, told The Irrawaddy, “When Shwe Mann replaced Thein Sein as USDP chairman, that’s when the power struggle between them started heating up.”
The MP claimed that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the National League for Democracy (NLD), had been positioning herself closer to Shwe Mann, as both leaders are in the Lower House and want to gain more influence on decision-making by Thein Sein’s government, particularly in the peace process.
“Aung San Suu Kyi and Thura Shwe Mann are in the same political boat, and on the other side are President U Thein Sein, Aung Min and the [Myanmar Peace Center],” he said. “These two groups are now in a power struggle.”
The claims that Suu Kyi’s has shifted towards an unofficial alliance with Shwe Mann against Thein Sein echo a persistent rumor that has been circulating for several months among political observers in Rangoon and Naypyidaw.
“Now, Aung San Suu Kyi has closer relationships with Shwe Mann. She has already begun to criticize Thein Sein’s reforms,” the MP said, referring to remarks by the NLD leader. In late May, Suu Kyi said the reform measures of recent years “have produced no tangible changes” for the rule of law and peace in Burma.
NLD MP Phyo Min Thein dismissed the claims about his party leader. “I reject the idea that Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann are forming a political alliance against the government,” he said in a recent interview, adding that the two simply enjoyed a good working relationship.
“Aung San Suu Kyi is a Lower House member and Shwe Mann is the speaker, so they have good relations in order to pass legislation,” he said.
Shwe Mann denied that his questioning of the peace process was part of a growing political rivalry between him and the president.
“There are talks between the government and Parliament as their opinions are not the same,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “Such differences in opinion are normal, so we have to negotiate. When we do that, we follow the people’s voices and desires because we are parliamentarians.”
Additional reporting by Nyein Nyein.