Burma’s Suu Kyi Poised for Parliament

By Aye Aye Win 2 May 2012

NAYPYIDAW—Aung San Suu Kyi is set to be sworn in to Burma’s military-backed Parliament on Wednesday to take public office for the first time since launching her struggle against authoritarian rule nearly a quarter century ago.

The 66-year-old opposition leader’s entry into the legislature heralds the start of a historic new political era in Burma, cementing a risky detente between her party and the government of President Thein Sein. The government has spearheaded months of unexpected reforms since taking power last year, including the holding of April 1 by-elections.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party will occupy too few seats to have any real power in the ruling-party dominated assembly, and there are fears the presence of the opposition lawmakers could simply legitimize the current regime. But the new lawmakers are also likely to bring a level of public debate to the legislative body that has never been seen as they prepare for the next general election in 2015.

The last time Suu Kyi’s party was set to join Parliament was 1990, following a landslide election victory that was swiftly annulled by the army. The military remained in power until last year.

Suu Kyi’s personal ascent marks an astonishing reversal of fortune for a woman who became one of the world’s most prominent prisoners of conscience, held under house arrest for much of the last two decades.

When the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner was finally released in late 2010, just after a vote her party boycotted that was deemed neither free nor fair, few could have imagined she would make the leap from democracy advocate to elected official in less than 18 months.

But the road has not been easy. This week, Suu Kyi backed down in a dispute over the oath of office which, had it dragged on, could have spiraled into another major crisis.

Suu Kyi and her colleagues had refused to join parliament when the latest session began April 23 because they object to phrasing in the oath that obligates them to “safeguard the constitution.” They want the word “safeguard” changed to “respect,” and have vowed to work to change the constitution because it was drafted under military rule.

But on Monday, Suu Kyi abruptly changed course, saying: “Politics is an issue of give and take. We are not giving up, we are just yielding to the aspirations of the people.”

The party’s failure to take their seats had irked some of Suu Kyi’s backers, who were eager to see the diminutive woman who has stood up to Burma’s military for 23 years finally hold office.

The opposition NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested on April 1, and 38 of those lawmakers were to take the oath of office Wednesday in the capital, Naypyidaw. Three lawmakers are out of the country, though, and oaths will not be taken for two other seats on regional parliaments that are not in session this week.

While the opposition’s entry into the bicameral legislature is highly symbolic, the new lawmakers will have little power. A couple dozen lawmakers from smaller opposition parties also sit in the assembly, but the vast majority of seats are held by the military-backed ruling party and the army, which is allotted 25 percent of them. Changes to the constitution require a 75 percent majority, meaning that doing so is all but impossible without military approval.