Myanmar’s ethnic political parties and armies have called on Aung San Suu Kyi to use her fresh election mandate to work toward her stated goal of federalism by amending the constitution to increase states’ rights and ramping up peace talks to end the multiethnic country’s long-running armed conflicts.
Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, and her ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) won the Nov. 8 general elections by a landslide.
The NLD followed the victory with a call for unity with the small parties, while the country’s powerful military and some ethnic armies weighed in with gestures toward peace talks aimed at ending various ethnic insurgencies that have plagued Myanmar since its independence from Britain in 1948.
Ethnic minority political parties, some of which fared well in their states but did not win many national seats, say they want the NLD and the largest opposition force, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), to amend the constitution to give their states the right to appoint their own chief ministers.
The parties want the NLD to amend Article 261, which grants Myanmar’s president, rather than local legislators, the authority to nominate chief ministers in the country’s 14 states and regions. Lawmakers from the majority winning party in each state should name their own chief ministers as a first step towards the formation of a federal union, say the parties.
NLD lawmakers proposed amending the article when the USDP controlled the government from 2011-2016, but the military-backed ruling party opposed it.
Similarly, the USDP called for changing the article during the NLD government’s current term, but NLD lawmakers who control the majority of seats in the national parliament opposed the measure.
Naing Lal Tama, secretary of the Mon Unity Party in southeastern Myanmar, said political parties comprised mostly of the majority ethnic Bamars, who make up 68 percent of Myanmar’s 54 million people, use the Article 261 issue to win votes.
“I conclude that major parties are playing around with this issue,” he told RFA. “When they were the ruling party, they opposed changing that section of the constitution, but when they became the opposition, they raised the issue to get support from ethnic minorities.”
Sai Kyaw Nyunt, secretary of Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) from northern Myanmar, said his party’s stance on amending Article 261 is different from those of the NLD and the USDP.
“We support the efforts to amend Article 261, but we also want a political landscape without the non-elected lawmakers appointed by the military,” he said.
25 percent for army
Myanmar’s constitution, written by a military junta that ruled the country, guarantees military lawmakers 25 percent of parliamentary seats and gives them an effective veto over proposed charter changes.
The USDP wanted to amend Article 261 only while it had the backing of military lawmakers in parliament, Sai Kyaw Nyunt suggested.
NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin said the NLD has opposed changing the article because military MPs would block the measure.
“We have been paying attention to ethnic minorities’ rights since our first parliamentary sessions, but we cannot ignore the issue of the 25 percent of military MPs whenever we talk about ethnic groups’ rights,” he said.
“This right could be misused by the alliance of the 25 percent of military MPs and the political party that condones backsliding toward a military regime,” Monywa Aung Shin said.
Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the pro-military think tank the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, rejects the NLD’s reasoning.
“The issue of the 25 percent of military MPs is just an excuse,” he said. “If they genuinely want to bring development for ethnic states and work together, this should not be a roadblock.”
A review of past parliamentary sessions shows that military legislators did not block development projects in the states, he noted.
“It has been statistically proven that the presence of the 25 percent of military MPs is not a problem for the states,” Thein Tun Oo said. “This is a pretext for them not wanting to fight for that cause.”
Step up peace talks
Pe Than, a Rakhine state lawmaker and member of the policy committee of the Arakan National Party, said the sheer number of lawmakers from other parties is enough to override attempts by military legislators to try to appoint their own chief ministers.
“A military serviceman can be a chief minister if he gets enough support,” he said. “On the other hand, we the civilian groups have 75 percent of votes in the [various] parliaments. We have ample opportunities.”
“It is not logical that the ruling party opposes the amendment,” Pe Than said. “Its primary goal is to maintain the authority to be able to recruit chief ministers for all states by the majority winning party alone. This is an act that undermines the role of ethnic minority parties.”
Ethnic armed groups and analysts said the incoming NLD government, which will take office in late March, must sharpen its approach to peacemaking and find common ground with the military during its second five-year term.
Following the elections, the NLD appealed to dozens of ethnic political parties to join an effort to forge a federal union, while the military set up a permanent Peace Talks Committee with five lieutenant-generals to negotiate with rebel armies.
The United Wa State Army (USWA), Myanmar’s largest non-state military, and the Arakan Army (AA), which has been fighting a nearly two-year-long battle with Myanmar forces in Rakhine state, said they would cooperate with the next government on peace and national reconciliation.
Aung San Suu Kyi held four sessions of the 21st-century Panglong Conference since taking office in 2016. During her tenure, only two other ethnic armed groups have joined the nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), a peace pact forged in 2015 between the Thein Sein government and eight ethnic armies.
“We have ending the civil wars as our top priority,” said NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt. The prospect for further discussions look positive after the recent post-election developments, he added.
“This is very good sign indicating that there will be significant progress in the next five years, and it will be different from the last five years,” he said.
The Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), an alliance of some of the largest of rebel forces that have been at war with the central government for decades and have resisted signing the NCA because they want to keep their armies, issued a statement on Nov. 18 welcoming the NLD’s election victory and pledging to work with the government toward national reconciliation based on equal partnership.
New approach required
The FPNCC has proposed a confederate system in Myanmar that allows ethnic organizations to maintain their own armed forces — a move that the Myanmar military strongly opposes.
Other FPNCC members, and three other NCA non-signatories — the AA, Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — issued separate announcements on Nov. 20 welcoming the NLD’s victory and expressing a willingness to work with the new government and the military on securing a nationwide peace pact.
“I want to urge the NLD government to implement genuine policies on peace progress,” said TNLA Brigadier General Tar Phone Kyaw, who is also secretary general of the TNLA’s political wing, the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF).
“If it keeps doing the same thing during this tenure, it will never succeed and end the armed conflicts,” he told RFA.
Zaw Htay, spokesman for the President’s Office, did not respond to RFA’s request for comment on the peace process or possible action the government will take during the next five years.
Though current talks among the government, military, and NCA non-signatory groups have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, peace negotiations likely will be resumed in early December, said Hla Maung Shwe who advises the current government’s peace team and is a member of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC).
“I believe there will be significant changes,” he said. “There will be better approaches for the peace process as there is growing trust from the ethnic armed groups.”
RFA could not reach Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun for comment on the prospects for the peace process during the next government.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha expressed doubt about such prospects.
“So far, we haven’t gotten to the point of peace negotiations,” he said. “We have been trying to avoid armed engagements as much as possible to build trust. ”
Khu Nyay Reh, liaison officer of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in Kayah state, said that the military and civilian-led government have not worked in tandem on the peace process, despite the four rounds of negotiations Aung San Suu Kyi has held.
“The military has acted like a separate body, independent from the civilian government,” he said. “The civilian government also tends to act on its own. We clearly have seen this trend during the current government’s tenure.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myunt Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.