By Aung Hla Tun and Paul Mooney
Myanmar’s political and ethnic leaders agreed on Friday to work together on reforms and peace talks ahead of a 2015 election after US President Barack Obama urged the government to make every effort to end ethnic conflict.
The president and the military chief met opposition parties and ethnic minority groups at a roundtable meeting in the capital Naypyitaw, the first meeting of its kind in the Southeast Asian nation. The gathering also marked the first meeting between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and powerful armed forces chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Some critics are calling the hastily arranged get-together an attempt to burnish Myanmar’s image ahead of a visit by Obama next month, his second to the country.
The political leaders discussed keeping momentum on reforms and national reconciliation and cooperating to make the 2015 election free and fair, Information Minister Ye Htut said at a press conference after the three-hour meeting. He gave no details on how those aims would be achieved.
“The meeting was cordial and the participants exchanged their views very frankly,” he said.
The participants agreed to continue talks but have yet to schedule their next meeting, he added.
High-level peace talks with more than a dozen ethnic rebel groups stalled in September, dashing government hopes for an agreement then. The political leaders agreed on Friday to work toward signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement later this year or in early 2015.
The United States has grown increasingly concerned about human rights abuses in Myanmar, including the jailing of journalists, and alleged oppression of stateless Rohingya Muslims and ethnic minorities.
President Thein Sein has ordered Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission to investigate the death in army custody of journalist Par Gyi, the government said in a statement published in state media.
On Tuesday, the US State Department called for a transparent investigation into the death of Par Gyi, a former democracy activist who once worked as a bodyguard for Suu Kyi.
Obama spoke to Thein Sein on Thursday by telephone, urging that “every effort be made to conclude a national ceasefire in the short term”, the White House said
The US president, who will visit Myanmar for a regional summit on Nov 12-13, also stressed the importance of taking more steps to address the humanitarian situation in Rakhine state as well as measures to support the civil and political rights of the Rohingya people, the White House said.
Violence erupted across Rakhine in 2012 between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, killing at least 200 people and displacing 140,000, most of them Rohingya.
Obama also spoke to Suu Kyi, the White House said, discussing the status of Myanmar’s political and economic reforms and the need for an “inclusive, credible process” for conducting the 2015 elections.
CRACKS AHEAD OF ELECTION
Despite winning massive popularity at home and abroad, since becoming a lawmaker Suu Kyi has been criticised for her reluctance to comment on contentious political issues, or speak out against the military.
Cracks in the fledgling democracy have widened ahead of the an election next year.
In particular, tensions linger over moves by Suu Kyi’s party, backed by 5 million petitioners, to amend the constitution and reduce the political clout of a military that ruled Myanmar brutally for 49 years.
News of the meeting so close to Obama’s arrival has been met with scepticism in Myanmar.
“There won’t be anything substantive out of one meeting because it’s just the first step, said Aung Thu Nyein, a Bangkok-based academic and Myanmar specialist.
“It looks as if this is being timed for Obama’s visit, but this might be the start of what has been needed for a long time, an institutional framework for dialogue. There’s a lot that needs to be talked about and problems that will need solutions.”
Only six of Myanmar’s 70 political parties and a few ethnic groups were invited to the talks.
“The president will have to explain,” said Aye Maung, leader of the Arakan National Party, the second biggest ethnic party in parliament which is based in Rakhine state and was not invited.
Thein Sein, a former junta general, has been lauded for widespread reforms since taking power in 2011 and convincing the West to suspend most sanctions, but critics say those changes are now starting to unravel.
Obama has sought to present U.S. backing of Myanmar’s reforms as a foreign policy success, but Washington has viewed developments in the country with growing concern.
Next year’s parliamentary election will be the first since 2010, which ushered in a quasi-civilian system that dismantled the absolute control of a military that had ruled since a 1962 coup, 14 years after independence from Britain.
It will also be the first general election that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has contested since it won a 1990 vote that the military ignored. The party boycotted the 2010 poll and Suu Kyi was under house arrest at the time.
The military holds several cabinet posts and 25 percent of legislative seats, essentially a veto on any attempt to change a constitution it drafted as any amendment needs more than 75 percent support. The NLD is leading the push to change that, but is facing strong resistance.