Nearly 22 years after winning a landslide majority in Parliament that the military junta simply ignored, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will finally take their seats in Burma’s Parliament on Wednesday. The party, which boycotted an outrageously unfair general election in October 2010, won 43 of 45 seats up for grabs in by-elections held on April 1.
For the past two weeks the party has boycotted Parliament, refusing to swear to “safeguard” the nation’s Constitution, as is required of new members. The NLD MPs–elect wanted to say they would “respect” the Constitution instead. But on Monday Suu Kyi backed down and said she and her colleagues would say the oath as required. “In politics it is essential to give and take,” she told reporters after a party meeting. “As a gesture of respect to the desires of the people and in consideration of the requests made by lawmakers from democratic parties and independent lawmakers, we have decided to attend Parliament ... We will go there as soon as possible and take the oath.”
It is not clear what has been given and what taken, but over the weekend Suu Kyi had a meeting with President Thein Sein, the former general whose reformist initiatives have transformed Burma’s political landscape since his first-ever meeting with the democracy leader in August last year. What they said to each other has not been disclosed, but it seems to have been sufficient to persuade the NLD to enter Burma’s flawed democratic arena for the first time.
The dispute may seem a petty one but it is nothing of the kind. Suu Kyi and her party have grave misgivings about the Burmese Constitution, which became official in 2008 after a referendum of dubious credibility. After the democracy uprising of 1988, which was brutally suppressed by the armed forces with the loss of many thousands of lives, the military ruled Burma for the next 20 years through a temporary, emergency apparatus first known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which had no constitutional justification. A so-called National Convention was set up to frame a new national law, but after Suu Kyi and her party walked out in 1996, it went into the deep freeze. Yet the junta was painfully aware of its lack of legitimacy, and a “road map” to what they called “discipline-flourishing democracy” was announced in 2004, which culminated in the ratification of the new Constitution.
But for the NLD and others in the democratic opposition, this piece of paper was worse than the nothing that preceded it. The rule of SLORC and its successors could be justified as a measure of temporary dictatorship that did not exclude an eventual return to civilian rule. But the Constitution, despite all the elaborate democratic machinery, was seen by the opposition as a way to sanctify military rule and render it permanent, under a thin democratic veneer. Twenty-five percent of parliamentary seats were assigned to the military, and a military council, successor to SLORC, remained in place over and above Parliament, with the right to seize back total power and declare martial law at any time.
Changing the Constitution requires the votes of 75 percent of MPs, and as the great bulk of MPs elected in October 2010 belong to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a proxy party for the military, there seems little chance of Suu Kyi mustering enough votes to do anything about it. Yet she has made no secret of her determination to reform it, and the refusal of her MPs-elect to swear to “safeguard” it was a way of granting themselves the political space to make those changes. Suu Kyi’s comment about “give and take” would seem to imply a tacit willingness on the part of the president to help her achieve her goal of making Burma democratic not merely in name but in fact.
After a great flurry of reforms and concessions toward the end of 2011, including the release of all the most prominent political prisoners and the start of peace talks with insurgents who have been battling the Burmese Army for decades, 2012 has seen few other initiatives. So a decision announced today to combine the government’s two separate peace negotiating teams into a single body was welcomed as an indication that the tide is still flowing the reformists’ way. It was seen as an attempt by the government to force the pace in bringing peace to the Kachin region in the far north of Burma, where brutal fighting has continued for months, defying all efforts to stop it.
Suu Kyi’s decision to bow to Parliament’s demands and take the oath as written coincided with the appearance before it of Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, who told the national body: “Today I return to a new Myanmar [the official name for Burma], a Myanmar that is making history. The dramatic changes sweeping Myanmar have inspired the world.”