Myanmar's Suu Kyi reaches out to ethnic minority rebels

Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi
AFP

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday vowed to press for greater autonomy for the nation's ethnic minorities, in an early move to soothe the rebellions roiling the country after her party's ascent to power.

The country has been swept up in optimism for a more peaceful and prosperous future since the National League for Democracy (NLD) took power from the military on April 1.

But Suu Kyi warned Myanmar's prospects hinge on ending ethnic conflicts that have blistered the country since its independence in 1948.

To do so, the NLD government would seek "a real federal democratic union", the democracy figurehead said in a televised address marking Myanmar's New Year.

"Peace and a federal democratic union are closely intertwined and that's why we need to change the constitution. The most important thing is national reconciliation." They were Suu Kyi's first major comments as "state counsellor" - a role she took on following the handover from an army that dominated the country for 50 years.

The current charter, penned by the military in 2008, centralises state power.

The former junta in part justified its tight control of the country with fears that ethnic divisions would fracture the nation.

But the concept of federalism has gradually become central to peace discussions steered by the quasi-civilian government that replaced outright military rule in 2011.

Negotiations, which do not include all rebel groups, have yet to agree on exactly how powers such as policing or revenue raising might be shifted to regional authorities under a federal system.

But by reiterating the federal pledge, Suu Kyi has sought to reassure ethnic leaders that the NLD will not squeeze out minority groups.

The country's minorities have often complained of their treatment by the ethnic Bamar majority who form much of the military, economic and political elite - including within the NLD.

The NLD nevertheless picked up seats in many of Myanmar's ethnic areas in last year's election.

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi is beloved by many in Myanmar but blocked from becoming president by the same charter as her two sons carry foreign citizenship.

She is the daughter of the country's independence hero, who famously signed an agreement before his assassination that would have granted a level of autonomy to several ethnic minority regions.

Attempts to amend the army's charter under the former quasi-civilian government were stymied by the military - which is gifted 25 percent of all parliamentary seats by the constitution it scripted.

Any fresh moves to change the charter are likely to meet stiff resistance from the military, who can veto amendments through its parliamentary bloc.

Suu Kyi has taken a firm grip of the country's first civilian-led government in decades, taking on a string of senior roles in the new administration, including the powerful - if vaguely defined - advisory role.

She has vowed to rule "above" the president, picking school friend and close aide Htin Kyaw as her proxy.

Conflicts continue to rage in several areas between ethnic minority armed groups and the army, which operates beyond the reaches of civilian government, after a ceasefire pact signed late last year failed to include all of the country's fighters.