Myanmar to hold rare talks as Suu Kyi pushes for charter change

Myanmar's President Thein Sein will host rare talks Wednesday with influential allies and rivals including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she intensifies efforts to lift a constitutional ban on her bid for the presidency.

The long-awaited talks in the capital Naypyidaw, which follow a similar meeting of key political figures in October, come as the country braces for elections seen as a key test of recent reforms in the former junta-run nation.

The President's office director Zaw Htay said the discussions would likely include maintaining order around the elections, slated for November, as well as details of a landmark draft ceasefire agreement with multiple ethnic armed groups last week.

"There could be disagreement, it's impossible to be of one mind. But the more meetings there are, the more the talks can find common ground to benefit the people," he told AFP, adding that army chief Min Aung Hlaing was expected to attend the meeting.

Suu Kyi declined to comment on the talks when approached by AFP in parliament before the meeting, but her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party confirmed she would attend. It did not give further details of the content of the discussions.

– Star power –

The NLD is expected to hoover up votes in November's election, the first countrywide poll that the party will have contested in 25 years.

Despite her star power, Suu Kyi is barred from the top job under a provision in the junta-era constitution barring those with a foreign spouse or children from the presidency. The 69-year-old's two sons are British, as was her late husband.

She has solicited a wide range of support, including from US president Barack Obama, for her move to change the constitution, which she has described as "unjust" and written specifically to keep her out of power.

But observers say she has accepted that it is unlikely she will be able to become president at this time.

Last year the NLD gained five million signatures — around 10 percent of the population — in support of its bid to change another constitutional provision that enshrines the military's effective veto over any amendments to the charter by reserving them a quarter of parliamentary seats.

But the army has indicated it will oppose any efforts to significantly change it.

A military MP said limited amendments were possible but would not be made simply because there was pressure to do so.

"Some people are saying some (clauses) have to be changed… maybe it's OK if we don't change them," Phay Kyaing told AFP.

– Peace priority –

The NLD meanwhile has admitted the military veto meant it could not win a parliamentary vote on the issue.

The country's powerful parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann last year ruled out enacting any major changes to the constitution before the November polls, despite mooting a possible referendum as early as May on amendments approved by parliament.

Suu Kyi has previously pushed for "four-party" talks on the democratic transition, involving Thein Sein, the army chief Min Aung Hlaing and Shwe Mann.

But the president has resisted those calls, saying it would exclude ethnic minorities.

The former general has set his sights on an end to the ethnic insurgencies that have plagued the country for around 60 years as a key goal of his tenure.

Last week's tentative peace deal with rebels was hailed as a historic first step, though a deal still needs formal approval from ethnic armed groups.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma and ruled by the British until 1948, was plunged into isolation by a military regime that seized power in 1962.

It has won praise for enacting widespread economic and political reforms since it emerged from outright military rule in 2011, also drawing an influx of foreign investors to its untapped markets.

But there are growing concerns reforms are backsliding in certain areas, including human rights and press freedom.

by Kelly Macnamara

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