Thein Sein: Constitution Must Reflect Deals With Ethnic Groups

By Samantha Michaels 3 February 2014

RANGOON — President Thein Sein has urged lawmakers to ensure that any future constitutional amendments take into account the demands of ethnic rebel groups.

Speaking in his monthly radio address on Saturday, Thein Sein said the government’s negotiation team would soon begin political dialogue with ethnic groups as part of efforts to address grievances and end armed conflicts after decades of civil war.

“When considering changes to the 2008 Constitution, I urge you not to overlook the outcome of this dialogue,” he said. “Since the main demand of the ethnic groups is a union based on federalist principles, including equality, self-determination, ethnic rights and preservation of their cultures and languages, political dialogue of these and other wide-ranging issues will necessarily result in some amendments to the Constitution.”

He added, “Therefore, I urge those primarily responsible for constitutional amendments, namely, Parliament, political parties and political groups, to take the above factors into consideration when making amendments.”

Thein Sein praised the results of a meeting of ethnic groups last month in Law Khee Lar, Karen State, which is territory held by the Karen National Union (KNU).

Nearly all of Burma’s major ethnic armed groups attended the meeting and pledged to later move forward with a nationwide ceasefire agreement so long as it is accompanied by political dialogue. Thein Sein’s administration has inked individual ceasefire deals with all but two of the country’s major ethnic rebel groups, and hopes to consolidate those deals into a nationwide agreement.

“Building on the positive results achieved at the meeting, the necessary negotiations will take place to hold a peace conference in Hpa-an, Kayin [Karen] State to discuss the signing date and other details of the nationwide ceasefire agreement,” the president said.

His speech came one day after Parliament’s Constitutional Review Joint Committee released a report about proposals for amendments to the 2008 charter, which was written by the former military regime. The committee’s report reflected recommendations by members of the public, political parties and the military, and showed support for changes that would allow greater power sharing between the government and ethnic groups.

Thein Sein also spoke about continuing land conflicts in the country, as farmers and other civilians put more pressure on lawmakers to address new and old cases of property being seized by the military, private companies or the state over the last half century.

The president said his administration was addressing the issue “systematically, with emphasis on taking correct and practical action.”

“The government is also working with state governments to ensure data concerning landless families is collected and families are resettled according to township development plans,” he said.

“However, I would like to add that we will take appropriate action against those that illegally enter and occupy land.”

Over the past year, farmers and activists have been imprisoned for returning to plow their old fields as an act of protest against land seizures.

Last month lawmakers accused the government of ignoring a majority of land-grab complaints filed to Parliament, after a cabinet official said the total complaints numbered less than 800 and that the government had resolved over half those cases. The parliamentary land investigation committee says it has received more than 6,000 land-grab complaints since it began collecting data from all 14 states and divisions in 2012.

In his speech, the president also briefly addressed education and health care reform. He said the Ministry of Health was working with the World Bank Group to adopt short- and long-term plans for health care reform, after the bank last month announced it would give the country US$200 million to work toward universal health coverage.

Burma’s health care budget has increased since Thein Sein’s government came to power in 2011, but it still accounts for only about 3 percent of the national budget, while hospitals remain understaffed and under supplied.