6-Party Talks Impasse Creates Rift Between Parliament and President, Army

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 3 December 2014

RANGOON — The lack of a response by President Thein Sein and Burma Army chief Min Aung Hlaing following a recent Parliament-endorsed proposal to hold six-party talks with key political players in Burma indicates that the issue of constitutional reform could hit political deadlock, according to political analysts and opposition lawmakers.

They said it signals that the Thein Sein administration and the powerful Burma Army appear unified in their opposition to reforming the controversial and undemocratic charter, a position they warn that could ultimately lead to public unrest.

“It’s questionable whether they really want to make amendments to the Constitution,” said Min Thu, a lawmaker with the National League for Democracy (NLD). “If they cared about the people, these kinds of talks would happen.”

Ko Ni, a leading member of Burma Lawyers’ Network, said Parliament appeared to be at odds with the government and the army on the issue of constitutional reform.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Parliament foresee the deadlock so they proposed the [six-party] talks to overcome it. But the president and the commander-in-chief want to stick to what the Constitution says,” he said. “It seems that they want to govern the country with 2008 Constitution forever, if possible.”

He said, “The army should be under the government control and we want an army that has nothing to do with politics,” adding that a lack constitutional reform “might lead to a general strike, and we don’t want to see that.”

On Nov. 25, Myint Tun of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) put forth a proposal urging the president, the army chief, the speakers of the Upper and Lower Houses, Suu Kyi and a representative of the ethnic parties to convene soonest to discuss charter reform.

The proposal was passed in a joint session of both Houses of Parliament, and the bloc of military lawmakers did not object.

In the days that followed, however, it became clear that the government and military were reluctant to follow through with the proposal. Minister of Information Ye Htut told Radio Free Asia that a six-party meeting would be “impractical.” The army chief reportedly told members of the Karen National Union during a meeting that he would not accept six-party talks, as he would like to include more stakeholders.

Just days before President Obama’s visit on Nov. 13, a meeting was called with 14 stakeholders, including Suu Kyi, Thein Sein, the army chief and parliament speakers, but it was a purely symbolic meeting without substantive discussions.

Suu Kyi has been calling for charter reform for several years now. The Constitution is widely viewed as undemocratic and reviled by most of public as a mechanism for the army to retain power after decades of direct rule.

It contains clauses that grant the army significant political powers, such as control over a quarter of Parliament, an arrangement that give the military effective veto power over charter reform. Article 59(f) blocks anyone with foreign children or spouse from the presidency, a clause that would prevent Suu Kyi assuming the position following a NLD victory in next year’s general elections.

The USDP and its chairman and Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, who has announced he plans to run for the presidency in 2015, have appeared willing to discuss some constitutional reforms.

Myint Tun, the USDP lawmaker who put forth the proposal, said, now is the time for all key players to come together and deal with the charter reform. “They seemed surprised that the Parliament approved my proposal,” he said of the president and the army chief’s reaction.

“The Parliament passed it, I think, as it’s timely,” Aung Cho Oo, a USDP lawmaker, said of the six-party talks proposal. He added that many lawmakers were discussing the issue of reform among themselves.

It is unclear what charter reforms the USDP has in mind. In October, USDP and military lawmakers voted down a NLD proposal suggesting that Article 436 be amended. The article states that changes to key parts of charter can only take place when more than 75 percent of Parliament votes in favor, a clause that gives the military bloc effective veto power over reforms.

Asked what charter reforms the USDP wants to see, Aung Cho Oo said, “Everyone in Parliament wants to change the Constitution, [but] which clauses they want to change differs.”

Regardless of the USDP’s intentions, the current situation raises questions about the relations between the NLD, the USDP, the speakers of the Houses of Parliament and the Thein Sein government and the army. The latter two institutions seem intent on clinging to their entrenched powers and reluctant to move reform discussions forward.

Yan Myo Thein, an independent political commentator, warned that the government and army are steering the country towards a political impasse and growing public anger over the lack of charter reforms.

“If they don’t come up with a proposal, both international and local community would regard the government and army as having no interest at all in national reconciliation, constitutional amendments and the peace process,” he said.

“If they keep rejecting, it would be bad for the country. Changes in the country would stall and probably lead to a political deadlock—and tensions between the army and the people will mount,” Yan Myo Thein said.