Myanmar holds rare talks as Suu Kyi pushes for charter change

Kelly Macnamara
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National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi (R) attends a meeting hosted by Myanmar President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw on April 8, 2015

National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi (R) attends a meeting hosted by Myanmar President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw on April 8, 2015 (AFP Photo/Soe Than Win)

Myanmar's President Thein Sein held 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 presidential bid.

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 reforms in the former junta-run nation.

The closed-door talks -- attended by the president, Suu Kyi, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann and a few dozen other political figures -- touched on a landmark draft ceasefire agreement forged last week with several ethnic armed groups, Myanmar's Information Minister Ye Htut told reporters.

Discussions will resume on Friday and be whittled down to a smaller group of six participants, including Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, he added.

Changes to the constitution will be on Friday's agenda, "among many issues" including the signing of a binding nationwide ceasefire -- a prized aim of Thein Sein's administration.

- Star power -

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

Despite her star power, Suu Kyi is banned 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 received a wide range of support, including from US President Barack Obama, for her move to change the constitution -- a charter she has decried 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.

This enshrines the military's effective veto over any amendments to the charter by reserving them a quarter of parliamentary seats.

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

A military MP said limited amendments were possible but would not be made because of mounting pressure.

"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 speaker, Shwe Mann, last year ruled out 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 just Thein Sein, the army chief Min Aung Hlaing and Shwe Mann.

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 draft peace deal with rebels was hailed as a historic first step, though the agreement awaits formal approval from the 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.