Myanmar democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, became a parliamentarian for the first time today in a further sign of the former dictatorship’s political opening.
Suu Kyi took an oath required for lawmakers today in the capital of Naypyidaw after dropping a demand that officials change its wording, the Associated Press reported. Her National League for Democracy, which won 43 of 45 seats up for grabs in April 1 by-elections, had objected to language supporting the military-drafted constitution.
“This is a historic moment,” said Thaung Tun, a retired Myanmar diplomat who is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Now you have a formal opposition in Myanmar. It’s a good beginning for the democratic process.”
Suu Kyi’s participation in parliament adds to a political opening over the past year that has put the nation of 64 million people back on the map for investors. The U.S. said this month it will lift economic and financial restrictions on certain sectors of Myanmar’s economy, Japan forgave about $3.7 billion of debt and the European Union suspended sanctions.
Following the NLD’s wins in by-elections, where it took control of less than 10 percent of the 664-member body, members wanted the oath for parliamentarians changed to say they would “respect” rather than “safeguard” the constitution. Suu Kyi dropped the demand two days ago “because of the people’s desire,” spokesman Nyan Win said by phone on April 30.
The country’s transition to democracy requires “flexibility in the political process,” Suu Kyi told reporters yesterday in Yangon in an appearance with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who visited Myanmar earlier this week, told reporters in Bangkok yesterday that she was “delighted” Suu Kyi’s party would enter Parliament. The U.S. saw the opposition’s move as a “hopeful sign,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
“We would look for them to work together with the government and to keep the momentum on democratic process,” he told reporters in Washington yesterday.
Since taking office in March 2011, President Thein Sein has freed political prisoners, sought peace deals with ethnic armies, dismantled a fixed exchange rate that distorted government revenue and halted the construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese-backed hydropower project in response to growing criticism China was exploiting Burmese resources. He also met with Suu Kyi and convinced her party to rejoin the political process after boycotting 2010 elections.
In 1990, the military rejected an election victory by Suu Kyi’s party in which it won about 80 percent of seats for a committee to draft a new constitution. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner known in Myanmar simply as “The Lady,” was detained during both that vote and the 2010 elections.
Her party is pushing to change the current constitution, which guarantees the military a quarter of parliamentary seats.
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