Aung San Suu Kyi will take her seat in Myanmar's military-stuffed parliament on Wednesday, after reversing a brief boycott over the wording of an oath of fealty to the country's junta-era constitution.
The former political prisoner was scheduled to join the Myanmar (Burma) parliament on April 23, after her National League for Democracy (NLD) Party won 43 out of 45 seats in April 1 by-elections. But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi asked that the text of the oath be changed from a pledge to safeguard the constitution, which has many provisions her party disagrees with, to one that stipulates only "respect."
A standoff ensued over subsequent days, but it appears that the wildly-popular Aung San Suu Kyi yielded after sounding out other Burmese opposition figures and constituents. Speaking to reporters in Yangon on Monday, the recently-elected MP said "we are not giving up; we are just yielding to the aspirations of the people."
The event highlights the challenges facing the Burmese opposition as they make their long-awaited foray into the country's parliamentary politics – and into an institution still dominated by the same army that formally-ceded power after a November 2010 parliamentary election that in turn followed five decades of harsh military rule.
The NLD was famously denied office by the Myanmar Army after winning a landslide victory in 1990 elections, and memories of that injustice live on. “People agreed with her reversal,” said Myint Kyaw, editor of Yangon Press International, an online newspaper in Myanmar. “They recall what happened in 1990 when the NLD won the election, but then there was no progress,” he says.
Despite the party's success in trouncing the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the recent by-elections, the NLD holds only 6 percent of seats in Myanmar's parliament because only a fraction of parliamentary seats were up for a vote. Most of the rest are held by the USDP and the military.
“It will be very difficult to amend the constitution,” says Ko Mya Aye, a well-known former political prisoner who was freed in a January amnesty as part of the Myanmar government's recent loosening of long-standing political oppression. “The army has 25 percent of seats but any change [to the constitution] requires 75 percent of the parliament to vote for it,” he added, speaking by telephone from Yangon.
But Myanmar's government, headed by former general Thein Sein, has loosened in recent months and pledges more reforms – such as a revised print media code – during the current parliament sitting, which Aung San Suu Kyi will join on Wednesday, after meeting visiting United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon earlier today. He praised Aung San Suu Kyi for supporting democratization by making a political compromise.
Mr. Ban also urged Western countries to remove remaining economic sanctions on Myanmar, in response to recent reforms.
The EU has suspended sanctions for one year, while the US has relaxed some measures, a move that does not go far enough, according to American business lobbies looking at Myanmar as an investment destination. "Failure by the United States to take similar steps (to the EU) will do more than put American companies at a commercial disadvantage vis-a-vis their competitors," said the US-ASEAN Business Council in a recent statement.
Despite reforms, the Myanmar constitution gives the military the final say on several issues of national importance, argues the NLD. It was voted into law in a rigged referendum held just days after the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which killed perhaps 300,000 people, and was held while the ruling junta stalled on aid for 3 million people made homeless by the disaster.
Army leaders and USDP lawmakers say that the constitution is untouchable, suggesting that they may dig their heels in, despite Aung San Suu Kyi's apparent determination on the issue.
Khin Ohmar, a Burmese exile who heads the Thailand-based Burma Partnership, suggests that more widespread public support for constitutional change could be necessary if the NLD is to have any success prior to the next nationwide elections scheduled for 2015.
“It [changing the constitution] is possible only if outside parliament civil society movement is mobilized,” she says.
To be sure, even if the NLD wins the 2015 election, constitutional change could prove difficult.
Long-time Burmese journalist Thiha Saw summed up the challenge by saying that not only will some of the 25 percent bloc of army MPs need to vote in favor of constitutional change, but reminded that current laws also stipulate that at first 20 percent of all MPs need to back a motion to vote on the constitution. Changing the constitution “is not impossible,” he says, “but it is tall order."