Despite National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi attending several high-level meetings in recent years to discuss Burma’s political transition, little progress has been evident on some of the outstanding issues raised by pro-democracy advocates, perhaps most notably the country’s military-drafted Constitution. With a landslide NLD victory in the Nov. 8 election dramatically shifting the political dynamics in the time between those sit-downs and today, will Suu Kyi’s meetings on Wednesday with outgoing President Thein Sein and army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing make a difference?
On the eve of the twin bilateral dialogues, we repost a Commentary published last year on why Burma’s big political players must match words with action. This story, “Walking the Walk,” was originally published on Nov. 28, 2014.
Burma seriously needs talks, but talking for talking’s sake is not enough. These must be substantive discussions that will eventually lead to solutions to the country’s many problems, bringing about benefits for its diverse peoples.
These days, many Burmese people are convinced that a dialogue is, now more than ever, essential to resolve longstanding grievances over the country’s undemocratic Constitution. But the current stage of the constitutional amendment process is far from where we need to be. We are still talking about having talks.
On Tuesday, Parliament unanimously endorsed six-party talks—to involve President Thein Sein, the speakers of both houses of Parliament, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, military commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and an ethnic representative—to address amending the 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the former military regime. It was the first time ever that Burma’s Parliament has endorsed such talks.
More interestingly, the proposal was submitted by a parliamentarian from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Lawmakers seemed to endorse the meeting in hopes that it might help thaw Burma’s currently frozen constitutional discussions, which have hit a snag after military representatives in Parliament came out against any change to the charter.
The opposition and ethnic groups have not objected to the idea. Suu Kyi herself told reporters outside Parliament on Tuesday: “I do not oppose this proposal. This shows that the Parliament agrees that high-level leaders should have these discussions, and I consider this an improvement.”
On Thursday, Parliament moved quickly to choose an ethnic representative, voting for Arakanese lawmaker Aye Maung to represent them at the proposed sexpartite meeting.
But the idea appears to have been met with the cold shoulder from Thein Sein. Presidential spokesman Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that a six-party discussion would be “not pragmatic” and was unlikely to happen.
The military seems to be of the same mind. Min Aung Hlaing recently told Voice of America that four-party talks earlier proposed by Suu Kyi would be “narrow.” Suu Kyi’s sought-after four-party talks would involve Thein Sein, Union House Speaker Shwe Mann, the military chief Min Aung Hlaing and herself.
In a separate VOA interview, the president matched the senior general’s sentiment: “Discussion is the right way, but only four of us is not inclusive enough,” he told the broadcaster in comments made before Parliament’s endorsement of six-party talks.
The president and the military chief are believed to want to stick to the format of a 14-party roundtable meeting held in late October.
Unfortunately, that meeting didn’t result in any progress on the pressing issues that the country faces. Many critics said the meeting was held as a political ploy, just prior to US President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma in mid-November. Fourteen representatives from government, political parties and the military sat down in Naypyidaw, with participants including Thein Sein, Min Aung Hlaing, Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi.
The latest developments in Burma’s dynamic political arena appear to be splitting the country’s leaders into two camps. On one side, there are those in support of a six-party dialogue: parliamentary members from both Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ruling USDP, and Burma’s ethnic political parties. Many of the country’s most prominent voices outside Parliament, such as 88 Generation leaders, are also throwing their support behind a sexpartite outcome.
On the other side: Thein Sein and the military establishment.
Why is the president and military averse to sitting down with the four other representatives proposed by Parliament? They seem to think a larger dialogue bringing more voices—and potentially conflicting views—to the table will increase the likelihood that the political status quo prevails through the 2015 election. That status quo affords military representatives in Parliament a veto over most amendments to the charter, including the provision barring Suu Kyi from the presidency.
A genuine dialogue is crucial not only to discuss amending the Constitution, but also to address Burma’s various other problems, including a peace process with the country’s ethnic minority groups that is foundering.
Since Thein Sein took office in March 2011, the president and Suu Kyi have held bilateral meetings six times, though if those sit-downs included substantive discussions on issues like constitutional change, there’s little to show for it today.
And while talking about constitutional talks is progress when you consider where the country was three years ago, it’s high time that those doing the talking move on to the arduous work of negotiation and compromise. Instead of talking the talk, it’s time to walk the walk.