President Win Myint marked Myanmar’s Independence Day on Monday with a call for constitutional reform, but ethnic political parties said they wanted to hear the incoming government’s plans for negotiating with armed ethnic groups to end long-running wars.
Leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept November elections to secure another five-year mandate to rule the former Burma, which gained independence from Britain on Jan. 4, 1948, but has endured seven decades of internal armed conflict that has stymied the country’s development.
The victory was followed by an appeal to dozens of ethnic political parties to join her effort to forge a federal union in the multiethnic nation of 54.4 million people, and other confidence-building gestures from the government and the military.
A cease-fire in the two-year-old war Rakhine state that has held since the Nov. 8 vote, and there have been contacts between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA), which is fighting for autonomy for the ethnic Rakhines in the coastal state.
On Jan. 1, the AA released three NLD candidates the rebel force had abducted during a campaign trip and held for two months, handing them to the regional military command.
Regional Commander Brigadier General Htin Latt Oo said talks with the AA over holding possible elections in areas of Rakhine state where they were cancelled in November led to the release of the candidates.
Myanmar’s army has backed an AA demand that elections be held in parts of Rakhine where voting was cancelled, disenfranchising 1.2 million of the 1.6 million voters and costing 15 seats in parliament, but so far authorities have not responded to the demand.
NLD representatives have begun meeting with representatives from some ethnic political parties, which seek decentralized government control and the ability to manage their own affairs and benefit from their natural resources.
In his message to Myanmar’s ethnic national citizens, Win Myint said the government is working on ending the armed conflicts, securing long-term peace, and building a democratic federal union.
“All of you need to participate and cooperate in order to make the constitution, which is the foundation in the establishment of the future democratic federal union, to be fully aligned with democratic principles and standards, the actual situation of the country and the emerging federal union system,” he said.
Win Myint urged ethnic citizens to work towards Independence Day objectives including the non-disintegration of the Union and the amending of the constitution for the emergence of a genuine democratic federal union.
‘Going around in circles’
In response to Win Myint’s message, some ethnic party leaders urged the NLD government to put more effort into dealing with ethnic affairs within the existing legal framework rather than prioritizing attempts to amend the constitution, which face a structural impediment crafted by the military authors of the charter.
Pe Than, Rakhine state lawmaker and member of the Arakan National Party’s (ANP) policy committee, said that the NLD “should think about what it can do to ease the rules for ethnic minorities.”
“Only then can it achieve something toward reconciliation, while not confronting any parties on the constitutional reform issue.” he said.
Pe Than said that increasing budgets for ethnic minority areas and raising their shares of natural resources produced in their regions are more practical issues for the government to focus on and are within its authority to change.
“If you try to tackle constitutional reform, you’d be going around in circles,” he said. “It will be never-ending.”
The NLD government made constitutional reform a key objective before and after it won 2015 elections, but attempts to make the charter more democratic were blocked by unelected military legislators who control a quarter of seats in the national parliament under the 2008 constitution that the army wrote.
Ethnic political parties, including the ANP, have pushed for the amendment of Article 261, which gives the president the power to appoint chief ministers in Myanmar’s 14 states and regions.
But in March 2020, NLD lawmakers rejected an opposition party-sponsored bill to change the section to allow chief ministers to be elected.
After an Independence Day ceremony in Sittwe, Rakhine State Chief Minister Nyi Pu said that the government must keep working on devolving power to the regions.
“We are not satisfied,” he said. “There are shortcomings in realizing the missions set out by the state.”
“These missions cannot be accomplished within a short period of time,” he said.
Bold steps needed
One analyst said that the president’s message did not convey any distinctive initiatives for the future of the country.
“The ruling government should take bold steps that will contribute to national reconciliation, trust-building between parties, and the building of a federal democratic union,” said Yangon-based Myanmar political analyst Yan Myo Thein.
“The president’s speech should lay out in detail the ruling government’s goals, policies, strategies, and preparations for trust building and negotiations for national reconciliation in the upcoming years.”
The NLD’s central executive committee, which is meeting with representatives of ethnic parties that responded to its call, met delegates from the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP), Lisu National Development Party, and New Democracy Party-Kachin at NLD party headquarters in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina on Jan. 1.
But a scheduled meeting with the Mon Unity Party (MUP) in southern Myanmar’s Mon state was cancelled over a disagreement about the meeting venue, said NLD delegate Aung Moe Nyo, chief minister of Magway region.
The meeting was initially planned to be at NLD’s headquarters in the Mon state capital Mawlamyine, but MUP delegates rejected that in favor of a neutral venue.
“We suggested that we should meet here at the state’s [NLD] executive committee office, but they said they wanted to meet somewhere else,” he said.
“They suggested meeting at the Mon state government’s guest house, [but] we couldn’t do that [because] our leaders specifically instructed us to meet here,” he said. The Mon representatives failed to show, he said.
MUP general secretary Naing Layi Tama told RFA that representatives from his party requested to meet NLD delegates at a third-party location as a sign of equality and mutual respect between the two parties.
“We requested three times to meet at a third-party location, but the NLD delegates never formally replied to us until now,” he said.
Political analyst Yan Myo Thein said the cancellation of the meeting shows that the NLD needs to be more open-minded when deciding on meetings with ethnic parties, which are critical for forging peace and moving to discussions for a democratic federal union.
“The NLD should have been more flexible,” he said. “If the NLD cannot agree with other parties on very basic issues, we should question how it will negotiate bigger issues, such as federalism, politics, and democracy.”
Reported by Thiha Tun, Thet Su Aung, Kyaw Lwin Oo, and Min Khine Soe Linn for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.