RANGOON — During a landmark meeting with Burma’s political parties, President Thein Sein warned over the weekend that the country’s peace process would continue to be fraught with difficulties, given the many ethnic armed groups and their respective interests, while insisting that his government’s three-year-old push for peace is on the right track.
Though the president has met with select political parties three times previously, Saturday’s gathering at the Rangoon Divisional Parliament was the first time that the president has met representatives from every political party in Burma, including the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
In his meeting with 179 representatives from 63 political parties, Thein Sein said 14 out of 16 ethnic armed groups that are in negotiations with the government had agreed to ceasefires, while discussions with the holdouts were ongoing.
“Were it not for your collaboration, the situation today would not have been possible. But we all need to work together to see more [peace process] development in future,” he said.
Most of Burma’s armed groups have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Burma government in recent years, but Naypyidaw is pushing for a single, nationwide agreement signed by all the country’s rebel groups.
The president’s speech comes amid concerns voiced by some over the past few months that the peace process is stalling. Formal talks have been repeatedly delayed and some ethnic armed groups—an ethnic Palaung militia, the United Wa State Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State, among them—are not fully participating in the process. The government has said, nonetheless, that it plans to hold a meeting to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement next month.
Thein Sein said a framework meeting for political dialogue is slated to be convened immediately following the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement. After that, a political dialogue held among all interested parties would take place to discuss the reconstitution of Burma as a federal union. Among other priorities, the nation’s ethnic minority groups are expected to demand greater autonomy and equal rights under an amended—or entirely new—Constitution.
The sought-after nationwide ceasefire is seen only as a means to a more lasting peace in Burma, and not an end in and of itself.
“That’s why we are heading to a peace process based on political dialogue, where you could discuss anything apart from something that would harm the country’s sovereignty, or secession from the Union,” the president said.
Thein Sein’s government, which took office in 2011, has made peace talks with Burma’s government a central focus of his reform drive. Over the same period, however, at times intense fighting between the Burma Army and rebels in Kachin State and northern Shan State has displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
In his 18-minute long speech on Saturday, the president also affirmed that constitutional amendments would be open for discussion during the political dialogue to come, while stressing that changes to the charter should be for the betterment of the whole country and its political, economic and social needs.
“I would not want restrictions being imposed on the right of any citizen to become the leader of the country. At the same time, we will need to have all necessary measures in place in order to defend our national interests and sovereignty,” he said, echoing a sentiment expressed two months ago.
The Constitution was drafted by Burma’s former military government and approved by a referendum in 2008 that was widely seen as rigged. A campaign is now underway, led by NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, to amend it ahead of elections in 2015. The current Constitution guarantees the military a role in politics, including by granting a quarter of parliamentary seats to members of the military, as well as bars Suu Kyi from becoming president. The charter is also widely opposed by Burma’s ethnic minorities.
After the president’s speech, leaders and representatives from the assembled political parties were allowed to speak for five minutes each to express their opinion on matters ranging from national reconciliation to constitutional amendments, the upcoming 2015 elections and the military’s continuing influence over the country’s political system.
Khin Maung Swe from the National Democratic Force party said he was satisfied with the chance to express his opinions and suggestions before the president on Saturday. The NDF politician discussed national reconciliation, and prospects for reducing military appointees within government ministries and in other positions of power.
“The president’s speech today was just mediocre,” he said. “He said nothing objectionable, while he didn’t promise anything.”
Tin Oo, the NLD patron, confined his five-minute remarks on Saturday to the peace process, urging all parties to work together for peace and stability in ethnic minority regions.
“Since independence, our country has been a long way from peace. So, I strongly urge you all, try to work hard for peace,” he said.