Ethnic Affairs Ministers Defend Seat at Negotiating Table After Suu Kyi Remarks

By Nobel Zaw 15 January 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s ethnic affairs ministers have asserted their place as elected representatives of the country’s diverse ethnic populations, in a statement published by the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar on Wednesday.

The statement said that as directly elected ministers of Burma’s states and regions, the ethnic representatives had attended a 48-party meeting convened earlier this week by President Thein Sein in the interests of the country and its people.

The statement, printed in the state mouthpiece, appears to be in response to remarks made by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday.

“Is it a meeting between government and political parties? I am not clear on what the principle behind that meeting was,” she said at a press conference at her Naypyidaw residence following the meeting.

“It is a little difficult to understand. They are neither party leaders nor chairs of parliamentary committees. I told the president, the meeting shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid the six-party talks. He didn’t respond to anything I said,” she added, referring to smaller-scale dialogue that she has endorsed.

Tun Aung Myint, the Karen ethnic affairs minister from Rangoon Division, told The Irrawaddy that Suu Kyi’s remarks were part of the reason for issuing the statement.

“There were some comments [asking] why the government invited the ethnic affairs ministers, and we wanted to show our intentions. That’s why we issued the statement.”

The statement was signed by 27 ethnic affairs ministers representing a host of different ethnic groups in states and divisions throughout Burma.

Under the 2008 Constitution, ethnic affairs ministers are elected to a given state or division if that division is comprised of an ethnic minority population of 0.1 percent or greater of the total populace. If one of the country’s ethnic minorities counts a state as its namesake, however, it is not granted an ethnic affairs minister (e.g., there is no Mon ethnic affairs minister in Mon State). Only voters who share an ethnic identity with a given ethnic affairs minister post are allowed to vote for candidates to the position.

There are currently 29 ethnic affairs ministers in Burma.

“The meeting was good because it included the minority ethnic representatives and also many parties were able to report what they wanted,” Tun Aung Myint said.

“The most important thing is to hold these meetings frequently—whether many parties are involved or not—to build trust, because it is only eight months until the next election and they have to hold frequent meetings and quickly decide on whether to change the 2008 Constitution and establish a nationwide ceasefire.”

Suu Kyi did not appear to take kindly to Monday’s 48-party meeting, a significantly larger forum than the four- or six-party talks that the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman has indicated she would like to see take place.

Under a six-party proposal endorsed by Parliament, Suu Kyi, Thein Sein, Lower House parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann and his Upper House counterpart Khin Aung Myint, Burma Army commander in chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and one representative of the country’s ethnic minorities would meet to discuss constitutional reform.

The president has thus far demurred on four-party talks, as proposed by Suu Kyi, and the six-party talks put forward by Parliament, both of which would put reform of Burma’s controversial Constitution atop the agenda, as a centerpiece of peace negotiations with the country’s ethnic armed groups and broader democratic reform efforts.

Yan Myo Thein, a political commentator, told The Irrawaddy that it was inappropriate to include ethnic affairs ministers in this week’s 48-party dialogue.

“They are elected delegates, but on the other hand, they are delegates of divisions and states,” he said. “There are ethnic delegates at the Union level and they are key political leaders on decision-making.

“If they want to really solve the ethnic issues, ethnic leaders and the leaders of ethnic political parties are more important than ethnic affairs ministers. So it is not natural and inappropriate, in the 48-party meeting, to involve 28 ethnic affairs ministers,” he continued, adding that the government had done a poor job of communicating any developments related to the talks.