NLD’s Principled Stance Could Backfire

By Aung Zaw 23 April 2012

The latest dilemma of Burma’s main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party regarding whether or not its elected MPs should take the parliamentary oath to “protect” the Constitution has stirred up debate both inside and outside of the country.

The NLD will not be attending the opening session of Parliament on Monday over the issue and party chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, who won her seat in the April 1 by-elections, said, “We are not boycotting, but we are just waiting for the right time to go.”

But what is the real game plan behind this? Some political analysts speculate that there is perhaps an internal rift among NLD members over the issue. Or perhaps Suu Kyi was not offered adequate political advice to make this decision?

If not, perhaps the intention is to demonstrate that the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and its hardliners cannot easily bully the NLD once in Parliament. The strategy then is to preempt powerful members of the ruling party who enjoy enormous wealth, influence and have an extremely long reach.

Indeed, the timing is awkward—the European Union meets to consider suspending sanctions on Monday, Western powers have been praising Burma’s reform process while donors and businessmen have been flocking into the once-pariah nation—but is there any perfect moment for such a stand? It surprised everyone, even the ruling party’s leaders, who were allegedly scheming to intimidate and get tough with the new NLD MPs.

The concern, some political analysts summed up, is if NLD MPs back down and agree to “safeguard” instead of “respect” the Constitution then they will have to fight a tougher battle in the long term to achieve amendments to the document’s undemocratic articles. The government and USDP hardliners could use the oath to inhibit NLD members—even locking them up or unseating those who persist.

Now the Constitutional Court is said to be considering the matter. It is expected that a compromise will be reached though no one really knows what that will be. President Thein Sein, chairman of the USDP, met Suu Kyi at his presidential palace for a one-on-one discussion before his trip to Japan on Friday. He apparently told the Nobel Laureate that he was aware of the issue and was also thinking of shaking up the ruling party.

In Tokyo on Monday, the president was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that Suu Kyi was welcome in Parliament, but “she is the one who should decide whether to join.”

Critics have accused the NLD of stalling over a tiny issue, but many hardcore party members and supporters have steadfastly continued to back this principled stance. However, many ordinary Burmese people who were expecting the NLD to enter Parliament and highlight the substantial issues facing the country remain hugely disappointed. This debate has now moved to online social media networks such as Facebook, and traditional local and foreign publications have also been actively covering it.

However, if the NLD cannot handle this deadlock in a strategic manner then there is a danger that things could backfire as its opponents—such as the military and hardcore figures in the USDP—will use the oath as an easy excuse to criticize the opposition.

In any case, millions of Burmese who voted for the NLD and continue to live in poverty are waiting to see the party take up many relevant and fundamental issues in Parliament where the USDP and military continue to dominate.

Several ethnic and minority parties were also waiting to embrace the NLD in the legislature as its presence will boost overall confidence in the opposition.

In Parliament, many Burmese will be expecting issues such as health, education, the allocation of the national budget as well as ongoing hydropower megadam projects financed by the Chinese to be discussed and debate.

Still more than 75 percent of Burmese live without proper access to electricity, yet energy from these controversial schemes will not be used domestically but instead sold to China and Thailand.

Other issues over the Shwe Gas pipeline and deep-sea port in Arakan State concern how resource-rich Burma’s sovereignty and security will be compromised in the future—gas and oil money siphoned into overseas banks, revenue secrecy and the lack of accountability in such mega projects.

Of course, there are many more arguments to be had in Parliament where the Burmese people have not seen substantive issues being debated so far. This is despite some Western governments praising the institution as being “dynamic and active.”

Many activists and civil society groups also want to see Suu Kyi and the NLD take up the issue of the remaining hundreds of political prisoners, national reconciliation including ethnic peace deals, the rule of law and the thousands of Burmese refugees living in the border areas of neighboring countries.

NLD MPs, other opposition members and ethnic parties may be able to raise these burning issues in Parliament. And many say that to abstain is a strategic blunder which could stall the political progress back to square one and a pragmatic decision is required. However, it appears that to pick a fight on the wording of oath is itself a tactical ploy to eventually enter the military-controlled legislature on the front foot before many other major battles begin.