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A sense of cautious optimism is emerging with respect to the upcoming “sexpartite” talks on constitutional reform, which will be held on Friday in Naypyidaw—nearly a month after the last round of multi-party talks failed to resolve Burma’s political deadlock due to the presence of too many participants and the absence of genuine dialogue.
Although last month’s talks were hailed as the first ever “quadripartite” talks between the Burmese government, parliament, military and political parties, the relatively large number of government representatives at last month’s “quadripartite” talks means that Friday’s “sexpartite” meeting will actually have fewer participants.
Commentators interviewed by DVB said this structure will make the talks more balanced than last time—and one politician even indicated that the sexpartite framework will provide a greater opportunity for lower-house speaker Shwe Mann and the ethnic MP to support Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to convince the government and military representatives that the Constitution must be amended before the 2015 elections.
“There are different views: Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann on one side, and the government and army on the other. We need to wait and see how successful they will be,” said Khin Maung Swe, the leader of an alliance of ethnic and opposition political parties called the Federal Democratic Alliance (FDA).
During the last round of talks on constitutional reform Shwe Mann was part of a larger team of powerful figures representing the government side—including President Thein Sein, Union Election Commission Chairman Tin Aye and Commander in Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing—making it more difficult for him to break ranks with the government team during negotiations with the other parties represented at the talks.
The individuals participating in this Friday’s talks will include President Thein Sein; Aung San Suu Kyi; Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing; House Speakers Khin Aung Myint and Shwe Mann; and one representative from an ethnic political party.
The six-party talks were hastily arranged after Burma’s bicameral parliament approved MP Myint Tun’s proposal on 25 November calling for an emergency debate on constitutional reform. Myint Tun is a member of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) representing Bago Region in the upper house.
In February, DVB reported that Shwe Mann sent a letter to the parliamentary Committee for Implementing Constitutional Amendments which said that any constitutional changes must be made at least six months before the 2015 general election. In the letter, Shwe Mann gave the committee the following instructions:
“Firstly, study, review and make suggestions on amending clauses in Chapter 12 of the Constitution; amend the Constitution to lighten the burden on the public; and promote the role of the Union Parliament in finding solutions and assist the committee’s work in amending the Constitution.”
Among the provisions in Chapter 12 is Article 436—a controversial rule which many have condemned as a direct attempt to preserve the non-democratic nature of the 2008 Constitution. Article 436(a) essentially gives the military veto power over any proposals to amend the Constitution by requiring such proposals to be approved by at least 75 percent of MPs. Coupled with the Constitutional provision which sets aside 25 percent of all parliamentary seats for the military, 436(a) present a formidable barrier to constitutional change.
In its February article, DVB quoted a lawyer for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party named Ko Ni, who said that when Shwe Mann referred to “lightened the public’s burden” he was alluding to the complicated logistical process of organising a nationwide referendum as required by 436(a) if an amendment is actually approved by at least 75 percent of MPs. Under 436(a), if an amendment proposal manages to pass through parliament it must be then be approved in a nationwide referendum by “more than half of those who are eligible to vote.”
Although the letter Shwe Mann wrote earlier this year indicated that he favoured modifying the military’s veto power and streamlining the procedures required to amend the Constitution, it seems the lower house speaker has recently had a change of heart.
On 18 November, Shwe Mann told a press conference in Naypyidaw that any proposals to amend the Constitution will only be entertained by parliament after next year’s elections. He also said that a nationwide referendum will be held in May 2015 to gauge public opinion on modifying the Constitution (while stressing that even if a majority of voters favour amending the Constitution any such amendments may only be approved by the new legislature after the 2015 elections).
It is unclear whether Shwe Mann was compelled by influential conservative figures to make this sudden announcement on 18 November or whether he actually supports such a conservative position and was only seeking to curry favour with the public—whose support Shwe Mann needs if he decides to run for president—by writing a letter to the parliamentary committee earlier this year which said that any amendments must be made at least six months before the election.
However, even if Shwe Mann supports Suu Kyi’s efforts to simplify the amendment process or reduce the military’s veto power, Pe Myint from the Myanmar Press Council (interim) believes this Friday’s sexpartite talks will still be dominated by what he calls the “ruling group.”
In an interview with DVB, Pe Myint said this week’s talks will include representatives from “the ruling group, the opposition group and the ethnic group. It might therefore appear as if the number of participants will be balanced. Nevertheless, we can say that in terms of representation the ruling group will have more people than the other groups.”
Yet Pe Myint also thinks the smaller sexpartite framework stands a better chance of yielding a political agreement among Burma’s political heavyweights.
“International political experts have said that in order for Burma to have a smooth democratic transition, it’s necessary for the respective top leaders to reach some kind of agreement. I see the current [sexpartite] program as a possible means of achieving this goal,” he said.
The views of ethnic leaders regarding Friday’s six-party talks are somewhat mixed. For instance, Aye Thar Aung of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA)—an influential umbrella group of ethnic political parties that won seats in the 1990 elections—believes the talks might help build consensus among some of Burma’s key political players.
Speaking with DVB, Thar Aung said: “I think this meeting offers important leaders [a chance] to present their views on resolving Burma’s political deadlock.”
However, Hkun Okker from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)—an alliance of armed ethnic groups that has been engaged in peace talks with the government—criticised the sexpartite structure for failing to include armed ethnic groups.
“If the talks are supposed to include the whole country, the UNFC should participate in the meeting,” he said.
A similar message was conveyed by Saw Than Myint, the spokesperson for the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), an alliance of ethnic political parties that successfully contested the 2010 elections.
Saw Than Myint said, “We are happy about the sexpartite or ‘big six’ meeting between the president, two parliamentary speakers, the commander-in-chief, Daw Suu and one ethnic representative. But we don’t like the requirement that the ethnic representative must be a parliamentarian.”
From the perspective of these two ethnic leaders (and many other individuals), the exclusion of ethnic groups that are not represented in parliament could render the “sexpartite” meeting nothing more than an ineffective talk shop—especially given that the long-standing armed conflict between ethnic groups and the Burmese army is the primary obstacle to realising lasting peace in Burma.
The absence of armed ethnic groups might be a formidable barrier to the meeting’s success; on the other hand, if the sexpartite’s smaller size is more conducive to genuine dialogue, then the framework might also represent progress for at least one participant—Aung San Suu Kyi, who expressed disappointment with the quadripartite talks on 31 October due to the meeting’s lack of meaningful dialogue.
After the emergency sexpartite proposal was approved this week, Suu Kyi spoke with reporters outside parliament in a measured yet hopeful tone.
“I can’t refuse this [opportunity]. The previous meeting with 14 people was unclear. This time, the parliamentary proposal is very detailed and there is no reason not to attend. Anyway, it is good that parliament passed it,” she said.