Myanmar president calls for unprecedented talks with parties, army

Myanmar president calls for unprecedented talks with parties, army

The talks, scheduled for Friday in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, are the first of their kind in the country as it attempts to emerge from the shadow of decades of outright military rule.

Experts say the meeting marks a critical juncture with the 2015 elections seen as a key test of democratic reforms under President Thein Sein’s civilian government. It also comes as the fast-changing nation grapples with thorny political and constitutional questions and the search for a nationwide ceasefire to several rebellions.

Confirming the talks, Khin Maung Swe, chairman of the National Democratic Force party, said the meeting will cover “democratic reforms, peace and (the) transition period”. It comes just days after Myanmar’s election authorities announced the upcoming poll would be held in the last week of October or the first week of November 2015.

Myanmar has promised the vote will be the freest in the country’s modern history after the military ceded direct power to a civilian government three years ago. The meeting also follows heated parliamentary debates over constitutional and electoral reform, as well as pervasive jitters that the government, which is dominated by former junta generals, may find a reason to delay next year’s poll.

“I think it’s really significant, this is the first time he (Thein Sein) has had this kind of meeting,” said one Western expert, who asked to remain unnamed. “This is a moment when everyone is talking about who is going to be the next president,” he said, adding there is “potential for tension to build up – this is a very important time for everyone to get on the same page”.

LANDMARK POLLS

Myanmar’s last general elections in 2010 were marred by widespread accusations of cheating and were held without the NLD or Suu Kyi, who was kept under lock and key until days after the vote.

Thein Sein has since surprised the international community with a number of dramatic reforms that have seen international sanctions removed as the country opens up to the world. Most political prisoners have been freed, Suu Kyi has entered parliament and the government has set its sights on ending multiple civil wars with armed ethnic minority rebels.

But the country still faces a myriad of challenges – including ongoing armed rebellions, an opaque legal system, creaking infrastructure and significant poverty levels – that will need to be tackled by any new government after next year’s election.

Suu Kyi’s party is expected to win a major slice of the legislature in that vote and parliament will then select a president. The party won almost every seat available in the 2012 by-elections that saw the democracy veteran become an MP for the first time.

But the 69-year-old activist, who spent more than a decade under house arrest during the junta years, is currently barred from taking the top job by the constitution. The charter says anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals cannot become president – the Nobel laureate’s late husband was British, as are her two sons. Many believe the clause was crafted specifically to thwart her political rise.

The NLD said it was unable to confirm details of the talks when contacted by AFP on Thursday. Khin Maung Swe said the talks would include the two vice presidents, the influential parliamentary speakers, the election commission and six main political parties.

Chairman of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party Sai Aik Paung hailed the meeting as an “important” step, but said more parties should be included. “We could then discuss a bigger range of different ideas, which would be good for our country,” he told AFP.

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