Walking the Walk

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 28 November 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. Snr-Gen 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.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

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 the opposition leader 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.

A Timeline of Suu Kyi’s Many Meetings
Dec. 4, 2015 — National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi meets former dictator Than Shwe at his residence in Naypyidaw. Quoting the ex-junta leader, Than Shwe’s grandson Nay Shwe Thway Aung wrote on Facebook: “It is the truth that she will become the future leader of the country after winning the election. I will support her with all of my efforts if she works for the development of this country.”

Dec. 2, 2015 — Suu Kyi meets President Thein Sein and military commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing separately in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw. Thein Sein and Suu Kyi are said to have discussed ensuring a peaceful power transfer. Her meeting with the commander-in-chief is their first bilateral sit-down since Min Aung Hlaing assumed the post in 2011. “Both sides agreed to follow the people’s wish to collaborate for the country’s stability, rule of law, national unity and development during the meeting,” read a statement released by the military afterward.

Nov. 19, 2015 — Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann meets Suu Kyi on the opening day of the 13th regular session of Parliament following a request by the opposition leader, who sent separate letters on Nov. 10 to Thein Sein, Min Aung Hlaing and Shwe Mann after preliminary election results indicated a big win for her party. Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi have met several times since then.

Jan. 12, 2015 — Thein Sein convenes 48-party talks in Naypyidaw involving Suu Kyi, Shwe Mann, the two vice-presidents, Min Aung Hlaing, 28 ethnic affairs ministers, leaders of ethnic political parties and USDP general secretary Htay Oo. Suu Kyi said the large gathering “shouldn’t be an excuse” to avoid her party’s proposed narrower dialogue.

April 8, 2015 — Another round of 48-party talks is held in Naypyidaw ahead of a six-party dialogue.

April 10, 2015 — A six-party dialogue on constitutional reform and upcoming national elections is held in Naypyidaw involving President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi, parliamentary leaders, an ethnic representative and the Burma Army commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Oct. 31, 2014 — The first-ever high-level roundtable meeting is held in Naypyidaw with 14 participants in attendance: Thein Sein; Min Aung Hlaing; Suu Kyi; Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win; Shwe Mann; Upper House Speaker Khin Aung Myint; Union Election Commission chairman Tin Aye; vice presidents Nyan Tun and Sai Mauk Kham; USDP Vice Chairman Htay Oo; National Unity Party representative Thein Tun; Nationalities Brotherhood Federation leader Sai Aik Pao; Federal Democratic Alliance leader Khin Maung Swe; and United Nationalities Alliance leader Khun Htun Oo. The meeting yields little against high expectations from political parties and the general public.

March 9, 2014 — Suu Kyi meets Thein Sein, their fourth sit-down since their historic first meeting in 2011. During the meeting, the two leaders may have discussed a four-party meeting that Suu Kyi had proposed to the president in November. The opposition leader has called for talks to be held involving herself, Thein Sein, the powerful Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann and the Burmese military’s commander in chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to discuss amendments to Burma’s Constitution.

Aug. 31, 2013 — Thein Sein and Suu Kyi meet in Naypyidaw and exchange views on the state of the country’s political affairs.

Sept. 25, 2012 — Suu Kyi and Thein Sein meet in New York. On Sept. 16, Suu Kyi began a 17-day visit to Washington, New York, Kentucky and the West Coast. Thein Sein arrived in New York on Sept. 25 for the UN General Assembly.

In September, Thein Sein says in an interview with BBC that he could accept a Suu Kyi presidency.

Aug. 12, 2012 — Suu Kyi holds her first talks with Thein Sein since becoming a member of Parliament. The Burmese opposition leader and Thein Sein discuss a wide range of issues but details of the two-hour meeting are confidential, according to Col. Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office. The talks take place in the capital, Naypyidaw.

April 12, 2012 — Suu Kyi meets Thein Sein again ahead of her historic entry into Parliament. NLD spokesman Nyan Win says that during the talks in the capital, Naypyidaw, the two discussed democratization and the peace process with ethnic rebels, as well as parliamentary affairs.

Aug. 19, 2011 — Aung San Suu Kyi meets President Thein Sein for the first time in Naypyidaw. The meeting lasts nearly an hour and is “significant,” a government official says. The meeting is believed to have paved the way for the NLD to rejoin electoral politics and collaborate in promoting political reconciliation.

October 2007 — Suu Kyi meets then Information Minister Aung Kyi, who was appointed by Burma’s military junta as a liaison to hold talks with Suu Kyi. He meets with the opposition leader at least three times over the next four years.

January 2002 — Suu Kyi meets Than Shwe. Following the meeting, the junta steps up the release of political prisoners and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party is allowed to reopen 35 of its branches in Rangoon.

1989 — Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi tries in vain to meet with then Snr-Gen Saw Maung in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

Sept. 20, 1994 —Suu Kyi meets the chairman of State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), Gen. Than Shwe, and Secretary One, Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, at a governmental guesthouse. The meeting is the result of mediation by Dr. Rewata Dhamma, a Burmese Buddhist monk living in the United Kingdom.

Oct. 28, 1994 — A second meeting between SLORC representatives—Khin Nyunt, Armed Forces Judge-Advocate Brig-Gen Than Oo and Armed Forces Inspector-General Brig-Gen Tin Aye—and Suu Kyi takes place at a governmental guesthouse.2000 — Suu Kyi meets then Sen-Gen Than Shwe. Details of the exact time and venue are unknown.

This post was updated on Dec. 8 to include Suu Kyi’s latest meetings, on Nov. 19, Dec. 2 and Dec. 4.