Fresh from an election victory with a new five-year mandate, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy has appealed to dozens of ethnic political parties to join an effort to forge a federal union, the latest gesture in a series of peace appeals in the wake of weekend polls.
With nearly all votes tallied from Sunday’s vote, the NLD clinched a clear majority of seats in the bicameral national Union Parliament, the Union Election Commission (UEC) said on Friday.
“I can officially confirm that we have won enough votes to form a new government,” said NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt.
The ruling party took more than 360 seats at the national level and also won more than 400 seats in state and regional parliaments, the UEC said.
The NLD proposal came in a letter titled “The issue of unity and Myanmar’s future” signed by NLD vice chairman Zaw Myint Maung and published on the NLD’s Facebook page on Thursday. The NLD sent the letter to 48 ethnic political parties.
The document said the NLD would work with the ethnic parties no matter how many or few seats they won in the Nov. 8 elections in the country of 54 million people the size of France with 135 officially recognized ethnic groups.
“The aims of the ethnic parties align with those of the NLD, and our party will focus on the wishes and desires of ethnic people in the future,” read the letter.
“We hope that the ethnic political parties will eagerly cooperate and work with us on the matter of a democratic federal union,” it said.
The NLD’s proposal came on the heels of an appeal Thursday from the Arakan Army (AA), which is fighting a two-year war against Myanmar government forces in Rakhine state, to hold “by-elections” in conflict areas. The proposal won approval from the military, which on Tuesday unveiled a permanent Peace Talks Committee to negotiate with rebel armies.
Reached for comment on the NLD proposal, some ethnic political parties welcomed the offer, while others expressed skepticism. Many said policy differences between the central government and ethnic leaders have widened during Aung San Suu Kyi’s first term because she and the NLD had failed to advance ethnic minority rights.
“The NLD should take the work of establishing a federal union more seriously,” said Sai Leik, general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, one of the parties representing the country’s second-largest ethnic group.
Broken promises breed wariness
Mann Aung Pyae Soe, vice-chairman of the Karen National Democratic Party, said he would cautiously wait and see how the NLD follows up on the offer it made in the letter.
“They have broken many promises in the past,” he said.
Mann Aung Pyae Soe cited the NLD’s failure to amend the 2008 military-drafted constitution to make the charter democratic in the face of resistance to the change from veto-wielding army lawmakers, and noted that a peace deal to end wars stretching back to Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948 remains elusive.
“We welcome this invitation if they are really genuine about delivering on their promises this time,” he said. “Otherwise, if this announcement is just a symbolic gesture to please the ethnic minorities, we won’t accept it.”
Many ethnic minority groups said they are interested in learning more about the NLD’s agenda for including their parties in the new government.
Pe Than, a Rakhine state lawmaker and member of policy committee of the Arakan National Party, said the NLD has not offered ethnic minority groups what they want.
“What we ethnics really want is self-determination and self-legislation rights granted by federalism,” he said.
“During the past five years, no matter how much support we had, the NLD never put us in the driver’s seat in state government,” he said.
M Kawn La, chairman of the Kachin National Congress Party, said ethnic minorities want the formation of a federal union based on ethnic groups as was promised at the 1947 Panglong Conference.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero General Aung San, led peace talks with Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minority leaders in February 1947 as a first step towards the creation of a federal union of all ethnic groups. But he was assassinated months later and the process unraveled within a year, spawning wars over autonomy, territory, and resources that rage on today.
“In reality, they are talking about forming democratic federalism, [but] what we really wish for is a federal union of regional entities,” he said. “Their principle conflicts with what ethnic minority groups want.”
“What we really wish for is the promise made at the 1947 Panglong Conference about forming a federal union that unites the different regions based on ethnic identities,” he said. “It will take a long time to compromise on this difference alone.”
‘Best to have a formal pact’
Khun Bi Htoo, chairman of the Kayan National Party, dismissed the letter as a mere acknowledgement of the ethnic parties that participated in the election.
“This statement is just an acknowledgement that we have struggled together and contested in this election,” he said. “There is nothing more to say.”
Thae Yal, secretary of Kayah State Democratic Party, said the NLD must offer more than just a letter if it wants to work with the ethnic parties.
“It would be best to have a formal pact between the NLD and ethnic leaders that states the promises,” he said. “If we have that kind of agreement, then the ethnic groups will be more confident in cooperating with the NLD.”
Some ethnic party leaders said they are ready to work with the NLD’s next administration.
Lin Htut, Shan state’s chief minister who had been criticized for being out of touch with locals during his five years in office, was re-elected to his state parliament seat representing Lashio’s constituency No.1.
He said he would work in any role the NLD asks of him during the next term.
“I will work in any given role to amend the 2008 constitution as the people wish, and then work on the peace-building process,” he said. “I will work hard and discuss with our ethnic nationality brothers and sisters how to forge national reconciliation and build a federal union.”
With regard to the NLD’s approach toward the ethnic parties, Myo Nyunt said that federalism would survive only in a well-established democratic system.
“If we implement the federal principles before that, it will lead to separatism,” he said. “That’s why we are cautious and will establish a democratic system in the parliament first. Then, we will forge an agreement with ethnic groups on the type of federalism we will create. We have stated this.”
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe said NLD’s statement is “a good sign for peace and for the founding of a federal union.”
“The NLD is showing that it will cooperate with ethnic parties in respective states as allied parties in its primary goal,” he said.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint, Nayrein Kyaw, and Kan Thar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.