Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her opposition party skipped their debut in Burma’s parliament amid a dispute over a loyalty oath on Monday, as the European Union suspended long-running trade sanctions on the country in a reward for democratic reforms.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) has objected to the oath that requires parliamentarians to swear to “safeguard” the country’s constitution, saying it was prepared to pledge to just “respect” the charter, which assures military dominance in politics.
NLD members were absent at the first parliamentary session since they were elected to office in landmark by-elections on April 1, but said they would attend future sessions once the issue of the oath had been resolved.
“Our leaders, especially chairman Aung San Suu Kyi, have requested the phrase be amended because this is important for the integrity of parliament and that of the country,” Myinthu, an NLD parliamentary representative, told Radio Free Asia.
“She didn't say we will not attend, but that we are trying to attend,” he said, adding that “it can’t be said” the NLD would not participate in parliament without a rewording of the oath.
Another NLD member of parliament, May Win Myint, said that NLD representatives are waiting for a reply from the authorities over their proposed amendment to the oath.
“We have submitted the letter and are waiting for the answer. The rest of the [NLD] representatives are all ready [to attend]. Only after we get the answer will the party make a decision,” she told RFA.
NLD spokesman Nyan Win told The Associated Press Monday that he believed the dispute would be solved within 10 days.
“We are cooperating with the government, so the problem will be overcome,” he said.
The NLD’s victory in the by-election, in which it won 43 of the 44 seats it contested, was considered a major step toward reconciliation after decades of military rule in Burma, adding credibility to reforms carried out over the past year under President Thein Sein’s administration.
Speaking on a state visit to Tokyo, President Thein Sein told reporters he was open to discussing changes to the oath.
“It is possible to make a revision if it serves the public's interest,” he said.
He added that Burma’s parliament would welcome Aung San Suu Kyi, but that she “needs to decide whether she wants to enter parliament or not,” Japanese media reported.
Burma’s constitution, pushed through by the former military junta in 2008, grants the military a set number of ministerial posts and one-quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament.
Aung San Suu Kyi has said she aims to amend the constitution to eventually remove the military from politics.
Banned after boycotting 2010 national elections, the NLD agreed to reregister to contest the by-elections only after the Election Commission changed wording in the political party registration law requiring candidates to "respect” instead of “safeguard” the constitution.
But those changes did not apply to the oath parliamentarians must take when they are sworn in.
Change from within
Other opposition parties in the military-dominated legislature have urged the NLD to work from within parliament toward a re-wording of the oath.
“I am sorry that they didn't attend the parliamentary session, as we want them to attend,” said Nang Wag Nu of the Shan Nationalities Democracy Party, the largest opposition party after the NLD.
Any proposed change to oath, which is written in an appendix to the constitution, would need the support of 20 percent of parliament to be discussed and 75 per cent to pass.
“Changing the law as they want can only be done from within parliament, not from outside. They should come into parliament, get the 20 per cent needed to propose the change, and then get the 75 percent support [needed to get the change passed]. It can be done,” she said.
But others were skeptical that the changes could win enough support to pass, since military representatives and those of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party make up the majority of seats.
Member of Parliament U Thaung from the National Unity Party, the third largest opposition party, said getting the changes passed may not be easy.
“We can't say if this is easy or not, as the views can be different. But sometimes things become agreeable although you might think they are different and vice versa,” he said.
“Although there is the issue of getting 75 per cent, we have many examples where we have reached an agreement.”
Despite the row over the oath, EU officials announced Monday that they would suspend sanctions on Burma in recognition of the country’s “historic changes” over the past year.
The trade, economic, and individual sanctions, which target more than 800 companies and 500 people, will be lifted for one year before further review, while an arms embargo will remain intact, EU foreign ministers agreed during talks in Luxembourg.
The EU had said the April 1 vote would be a test of whether they would ease the sanctions imposed because of human rights abuses committed under the then military junta rule.
The ministers said in a statement that the EU had “followed with respect and appreciation the historic changes in Myanmar/Burma over the past year.”
But they warned that the EU “will monitor closely the situation on the ground [and] keep its measures under constant review.”
In a statement following the suspension of the sanctions, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the international community must continue to monitor events in the still army-dominated nation.
“President Thein Sein has taken important steps towards reform in Burma, and it is right for the world to respond to them,” he said.
“But those changes are not yet irreversible, which is why it is right to suspend rather than lift sanctions for good.”
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
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