Myanmar's Suu Kyi poised for historic debut in parliament

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar Wed May 2, 2012 12:52am IST

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (C) talks to reporters after a party meeting in front of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party's head office in Yangon April 20, 2012. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (C) talks to reporters after a party meeting in front of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party's head office in Yangon April 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

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NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is set to make her debut in parliament on Wednesday marking a historic development for the country and for the Nobel laureate who waged a two-decade struggle against military dictatorship.

The 66-year-old Suu Kyi will take the oath at parliament in Naypyitaw, joining a political system making a transition to a fragile democracy in a country that wilted under 49 years of inept and oppressive army rule.

Suu Kyi and 36 members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party who swept by-elections on April 1 will take their seats in the imposing assembly after backing off a demand for a change to the wording of the oath new members take.

The dispute with the ruling army-backed party over the oath raised fears for a delicate detente with President Thein Sein, a former junta general who has overseen a year of sweeping reforms in the resource-rich but impoverished country.

Suu Kyi agreed on Monday to stick to the original wording, and she will swear to protect a constitution drafted under military direction that she says is undemocratic and needs to be amended to reduce the political role of the armed forces.

"We've always believed in being flexible throughout the years of our struggle because that is the only way in which we can achieve our goal without violence," Suu Kyi told a news conference in Yangon on Tuesday.

"I don't think flexibility will be a new concept for us.

Suu Kyi's entry into Myanmar's political system comes after years of stubborn resistance to the army's attempts to enshrine its grip on power.

While Suu Kyi and many of her supporters were in detention in 1990, her NLD swept an election which the military ignored. The NLD walked out of the military's constitution-drafting process in the mid-1990s.

SUSPICION

The party boycotted a general election in November 2010, when Suu Kyi was again under house arrest, saying the poll was rigged in favour of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The USDP won an overwhelming victory, but a new government under President Thein Sein embarked on political and economic reforms and he persuaded Suu Kyi to enter the political process.

In response to the reforms, Western powers that for years isolated the country over its human rights record, driving it into close ties with giant neighbour China, have begun to lift sanctions.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of the leader of Myanmar's campaign for independence from British rule, will take up her seat alongside uniformed generals and scores of retired military men in the USDP.

But there's deep suspicion on both sides and friction could be looming.

The NLD won all but one of the 44 seats it contested in last month's by-elections after a campaign in which Suu Kyi made the amendment of the 2008 constitution a central theme.

The charter gives the military wide powers, including the ability to appoint cabinet members, take control in a state of emergency and occupy a quarter of seats in parliament.

The NLD had refused to take the oath to "safeguard the constitution". Instead, it wanted to swear to "respect" it. Countering suggestions it had backed down, the party said on Monday it still disputed the wording.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was in Myanmar this week for talks with government leaders and Suu Kyi, praised the president as a visionary leader and welcomed Suu Kyi's decision to take her assembly seat.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who met Suu Kyi last week, also welcomed the NLD's decision and said it could now get to work on the country's problems.

"The important aspect from our point of view is to have her and other parliamentarians from the NLD in parliament," Ashton told a news conference in Bangkok on Tuesday.

"In terms of the constitution, I think this is for them to work out now that Aung San Suu Kyi has come in to parliament."

(Additional reporting by Thu Rein Hlaing in Naypyitaw and Amy Sawitta Lefevre in Bangkok; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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