OPPOSITION LEADER Aung San Suu Kyi was sworn in to Myanmar’s military-backed parliament today, taking public office for the first time since launching her struggle against authoritarian rule nearly a quarter century ago.
The opposition leader’s entry into the legislature heralds a new political era in Myanmar, cementing a risky detente between her party and the reformist government of President Thein Sein, which inherited power from the army last year.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party will occupy too few seats to have any real power in the ruling-party dominated assembly, however, and there are fears the presence of the opposition lawmakers could simply legitimise the regime without any change.
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 solemn swearing-in ceremony took place in the capital, Naypyitaw, which was built by the former army junta. With white roses in her hair, Suu Kyi stood along with several dozen of her party’s lawmakers as the speaker the lower house asked them to read the oath.
Speaking briefly to a mob of reporters afterward, Suu Kyi said her focus will be “to carry out our duties within the parliament as we have been carrying out our duties outside the parliament for the last 20 or so years.”
Suu Kyi’s 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 persisted, could have spiraled into another major crisis.
Suu Kyi and her colleagues had refused to join parliament when the latest session began 23 April 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 woman who has stood up to Myanmar’s military for 24 years finally hold office.
The opposition NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested on 1 April, and 34 of those lawmakers were also sworn in today. Several others are out of the country, 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. More than 20 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 per cent of them. Changes to the constitution require a 75 per cent majority, meaning that doing so is all but impossible without military approval.