Don't ignore Myanmar politics, Suu Kyi tells EU investors

YANGON - Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told investors at a European Union forum Thursday that business leaders should not ignore the country's political challenges as it heads towards crucial 2015 elections.

The veteran activist, who rejected suggestions that her party would slow economic progress if it came to power, said constitutional change was imperative for the economic development of the nation, seen as a key regional developing market.

"Anybody who encourages business or investment or any other activity in Burma while at the same time totally ignoring the need to amend the constitution is not being pragmatic," she said, using the country's former name.

She was speaking at a forum on supporting Myanmar's transition from decades of military rule that was hosted by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The current constitution, crafted under the former junta, would block Suu Kyi from becoming president after 2015 parliamentary elections because it excludes anyone whose spouses or children are foreign nationals.

It also ensures that a quarter of the legislature is reserved for soldiers.

President Thein Sein, who took power in 2011, has won international plaudits and the removal of most Western sanctions for changes including Suu Kyi's participation in parliament and the release of political prisoners.

President's Office Minister Soe Thane called on the international community to give "constructive advice" to Myanmar as it emerges from half a century of isolation.

He said the country was working towards "sustainable economic growth that leads to a shared prosperity".

"We want to move quickly to embrace democracy, the idea of social inclusiveness, political openness. But these will be just words unless we are able to change deeply-rooted ways of thinking and behaving as well," he told delegates.

Government officials at the EU session expressed frustration that Suu Kyi had repeatedly highlighted constitutional change.

"It is irrelevant to focus only on politics in this forum," a senior politician told AFP on condition of anonymity. "It is no wonder she wants to focus on constitutional amendment because she is a politician."

One Western investment expert who asked not to be named said the opposition leader's comments were "surprising".

"Between us, I doubt foreign investors have a single opinion about the amendment of the Burmese constitution," he said.

The forum, which runs until Friday, is considering support for the full spectrum of challenges Myanmar faces in its reforms, including development aid, help for the peace process and investment.

More than a hundred entrepreneurs and representatives of business associations were set to attend.

The EU, which pledged 150 million euros ($200 million) in development assistance for 2012 and 2013, said Thursday aid could increase to 90 million euros a year, although that figure has yet to be approved.

"I want to send a message to the people of Myanmar that we will support them for as long as it takes to help this country reach what we believe it can be - a beacon in this region and in the world for democracy, peace and prosperity," said Ashton.

Suu Kyi also spoke in support of a federal political system, a key concern of the country's numerous ethnic minority groups, at the event.

"All of us want a federal union because that would ensure satisfaction and confidence in all our peoples," she said.

The democracy champion has faced criticism at home for her apparent reluctance to address religious violence in the western state of Rakhine and clashes between the army and rebels in northern Kachin.

Myanmar has been beset by ethnic rebellions for decades. Tentative peace pacts have been signed with most armed groups but a nationwide ceasefire has so far remained elusive.