Meeting of Burma’s Big Political Players Yields Little

By Htet Naing Zaw 31 October 2014

NAYPYIDAW — The first-ever high-level roundtable meeting among some of Burma’s major political players failed to achieve a major breakthrough on Friday, as participants convened in Naypyidaw at a time when concerns mount that the country’s reforms have stalled.

Fourteen representatives from government, political parties and the military—including President Thein Sein, military commander in chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi—met at the presidential residence in Burma’s capital.

Participants discussed their personal views and the positions of their respective organizations, but no major breakthrough was publicly announced, except that amendments to the country’s controversial Constitution would be considered by Parliament, a development that Suu Kyi and ethnic groups have long sought.

Ye Htut, Burma’s information minister and the president’s spokesman, told the press afterward that the meeting was arranged because Parliament’s Constitution Review Joint Committee submitted its report the lawmakers on Oct. 22. “Fairly strong results” in the country’s peace process were also cited as a reason for the gathering.

“This is the first-ever meeting and all participants agreed to hold further discussions to find better ways and means to address the problems of the country,” Ye Htut said.

In addition to the most well-known faces in Burmese politics, the country’s two vice presidents, Upper House parliamentary speaker Khin Aung Myint, Union Election Commission chairman Tin Aye, and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) Vice Chairman Htay Oo also attended the discussion. Deputy commander in chief Gen. Soe Win joined Min Aung Hlaing in speaking for the country’s powerful military establishment.

Representing ethnic minorities’ voices were Nationalities Brotherhood Federation leader Sai Aik Pao, Federal Democratic Alliance leader Khin Maung Swe and United Nationalities Alliance leader Khun Tun Oo. National Unity Party leader Than Tin was also invited but could not attend, with the party’s central executive committee member Thein Tun filling in on his behalf.

The meeting was hastily arranged by the government ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma to attend the Asean and East Asia summits next month.

Asked by The Irrawaddy if the unprecedented gathering was aimed at pleasing the American president, Ye Htut denied any such motivation, saying: “After President U Thein Sein took office and put in place the reforms, the government’s focus has been constantly on democratization for the country and the people. There is no such thing as reforms having been carried out because of someone’s visit or to gain recognition from someone or some party.”

Thein Sein focused on three areas during the talks, calling for a frank discussion and cooperation among all national political actors to find solutions to the country’s problems.

Burma’s president talked about strengthening political processes with the aim of achieving a free and open society rooted in democratic principles; strengthening the peace process to foster national reconciliation, which he said was critically important for the country; and maintaining political stability in order to successfully hold national elections next year.

Participants shared their views on Thein Sein’s agenda items and also talked about the standpoints of their respective organizations.

The meeting largely focused on the ongoing peace process between the government and ethnic rebel groups; past and future political reforms; trust building; and the Constitution, drafted by the military and targeted for an overhaul by ethnic minority groups and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

The president stressed that it was important that a nationwide ceasefire be signed by the end of 2014 or early 2015. The adoption of a framework for political dialogue after that signing would allow ethnic organizations to continue negotiations with the government regardless of who is in power post-2015, he said.

Though the government has signed bilateral ceasefires with most of the country’s ethnic armed groups, clashes have broken out intermittently between government troops and a handful of rebel armies, weighing down on the Thein Sein administration’s peace push.

Most of those sat around the table on Friday were generals or former generals. Only Suu Kyi, Khun Tun Oo, Sai Aik Pao and Khin Maung Swe were civilian participants. Suu Kyi was the only woman at the 14-person discussion.