Criticised as being overly intransigent in the past, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has shown an admirable pragmatism since her release from house arrest in November 2010.
But her party, the National League for Democracy, has insisted its representatives will not take up their 41 seats in parliament until the wording of the constitution’s parliamentary oath is amended — an avoidable and poorly timed standoff. At best, it will serve the interests of hardliners who never wanted Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in parliament in the first place; at worst it puts many of the gains of the past year in jeopardy.
Over the past week, the NLD has requested both the president and the constitutional tribunal to intervene and amend the oath to no avail. Speaking to reporters in Japan, President Thein Sein pointed out that changing the constitution was the job of the military-dominated parliament, rather than the executive.
The decision to put the NLD’s fate in the hands of an institution that is potentially hostile to it has prompted some renewed examination of Suu Kyi’s political judgment.
The NLD’s refusal may antagonise and galvanise those former members of the military who see Aung San Suu Kyi as a threat, while undermining the minority of generals who are most essential to the reform process.
As the International Crisis Group noted in a recent report, Reform in Myanmar: One Year On, the size of the party’s win in the by-election results is likely to have alarmed many in the political establishment, particularly the USDP, and "may lead to greater polarisation of politics in the medium term". It is unlikely to prompt a major backlash from hardliners but if the NLD is to make headway in the USDP-dominated parliament, it will need to avoid unnecessary confrontation of this kind.
Most observers have been unusually critical of the NLD’s hardline stance on the oath. This contrasts sharply with its decision to boycott the 2010 election; a deeply polarising move, it had both supporters and detractors.
"This is an unfortunate strategic blunder for the leader of the NLD. She has put herself in an unnecessary dilemma," Burmese academic Min Zin wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine.
"By participating in the election Aung San Suu Kyi chose to play by the regime’s rules; now she needs to pick her battles rather than wasting valuable energy in a fight over symbolism."
Given the party had never previously raised its concerns, at least publicly, there is also a sense that by refusing to take the oath at the last minute it has deceived the 2.6 million people who voted for its representatives on 1 April.
"[M]any hardcore party members and supporters have steadfastly continued to back this principled stance. But many ordinary Burmese people who were expecting the NLD to enter parliament and highlight the substantial issues facing the country remain hugely disappointed," Aung Zaw, editor of Thailand-based publication The Irrawaddy, wrote.
Suu Kyi retains a de facto veto over the West’s foreign policy towards Burma and has avoided internal confrontation with her political rivals — the generals who kept her locked up for much of the past two decades. She has also matched the government’s concessions with a few of her own.
One of the concessions the government made to encourage the NLD to return to the formal political process was to amend the wording of the Political Party Registration Law so that parties only had to abide by, rather than protect or safeguard, the 2008 constitution. By not conceding the constitutional oath (for now), a question of semantics has now blurred Burma’s political future.
The NLD has a fraught history with the controversial Burmese constitution.
The constitution’s more contentious clauses guarantee 25 per cent of seats in parliament to serving military personnel — never mind the former generals in the civilian seats — require a 75 per cent majority for changes to the constitution and force the dozen or so armed ethnic groups inside Burma to come under the control of Burma’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw. But some also see it as a necessary evil that allows the military to retain a role in politics while retreating from centre stage.
The NLD was initially involved in the constitution-drafting process, known as the National Convention. Contrary to popular belief, the 1990 election that the NLD won in a landslide was held to select representatives for a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, after which fresh elections would be held.
In 1996, shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi was initially released from house arrest, the NLD’s representatives walked out of the National Convention. Drafting resumed in 2003 without the party and the military essentially foisted the constitution it wanted on the people at a referendum in May 2008, shortly after Cyclone Nargis.
The NLD boycotted the 2010 election primarily on the grounds that the 2008 constitution was unacceptable. Even after the wording of the registration law was amended by parliament — essentially a symbolic change — the party made changing the constitution one of its three main priorities.
But the NLD’s decision to abstain from taking the parliamentary oath prescribed in the constitution, which requires them to "safeguard, protect and uphold" the document, means they were unable to take their seats when parliament resumed on 23 April.
It may have been purely coincidence but on the day the NLD should have been entering parliament, some 59 military representatives were sworn in. Mostly brigadier generals and colonels, they were substituted in to replace lower-ranking majors in what appeared to be a message that the Tatmadaw is determined to maintain its role in politics.
Should the NLD boycott parliament completely, the process of lifting sanctions would be set back immeasurably, and the dispute is likely to be resolved in the coming weeks. A face-saving solution will be brokered that allows the NLD to enter parliament.
"I think there is wisdom on both sides to get through this," United Nations special envoy to Burma Vijay Nambiar said at a press conference on 24 April. "I can’t see them going through elections and not solving this."
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