NLD Risks a Great Deal on Oath Issue

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 20 April 2012

Burma’s political road is never smooth. The latest bump is that the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party has announced that its elected MPs are highly unlikely to attend the new session of Parliament due to begin on April 23.

The decision to abstain came after the Constitutional Court in Naypyidaw dawdled over the NLD’s request to change the wording of the swearing-in oath for new lawmakers in the legislature.

On Thursday, Nayn Win, one of the party’s secretaries, went to Naypyidaw to request that legal officials amend the vow from “safeguard the constitution” to “respect the constitution.” And he told a press conference at the NLD’s Rangoon headquarters on Friday that the party will try to ensure the issue does not become deadlocked.

But, despite his assurances, today’s political climate seems to be heading towards detente once again—although it does not appear as insurmountable a hurdle as we have seen in the past. The NLD’s decision not to join Parliament on Monday now resembles the circumstances back in 1996 when the party’s MPs, who were elected in 1990 but denied the chance to take their seats, walked out of the National Convention held by the ruling military regime.

It was soon after Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her first under house arrest and her party objected to the process to formulate the junta’s seven-step roadmap to democracy which had begun three years earlier.

Observers and the media viewed the move as a boycott against the principle of the National Convention. The ruling junta had to adjourn meetings until the early 2000s, with the convention unsuccessful without the NLD’s candidates taking part.

Now, international and local observers view the looming parliamentary session, complete with 43 new NLD MPs elected in the April 1 ballot, as heralding a new political dawn in Burma’s history. But things appear precarious at the moment.

This is the foremost problem concerning the 2008 Constitution which was drawn up by the former military regime’s hand-picked delegates. Suu Kyi and her party have kept promising that one of their missions in Parliament is to amend the undemocratic articles of the Constitution—particularly that which guarantees 25 percent of legislative seats to officials appointed directly by the military.

Of course, this article is undemocratic and widely criticized. However, the military is highly unlikely to give up this ration lightly. Commander-in-Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing defended the military’s continued role in national politics in his Armed Forces Day speech on March 27.

That would be the biggest issue for Parliament even if the Constitutional Court concedes to change the admission oath’s wording as the NLD has requested. It seems to be an issue that cannot be solved easily.

The NLD might have its new allies in Parliament but it is unlikely to have a force to defeat more than 600 MPs comprised of military appointees and members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. It’s a huge challenge for Suu Kyi and the NLD.

How about the reform-minded and popular President Thein Sein? He himself is an ex-general but, so far, does not seem to be in a position to call all the shots. His ex-boss, former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, has been taciturn since Thein Sein took office last year. But in this crucial issue for the military, the former supremo might be woken up again. Critics believe that Thein Sein still has to report to him to this day.

After the by-elections, Suu Kyi and Thein Sein met and talked for more than one hour. Nobody knows what was specifically discussed although it is generally presumed that they focused on politics.

The first meeting they held last year led to the participation of the NLD in the by-elections. So many more meetings between the president and Suu Kyi are definitely necessary to make the country’s political road less bumpy moving forward.