Published November 20, 2014
Aung San Suu Kyi capped a tenacious, decades-long journey from political prisoner to office holder in long-repressed Myanmar as the country's main opposition party moved its struggle for democratic rule inside government for the first time.
The swearing-in ceremony of Suu Kyi and fellow new parliamentarians Wednesday cements a fragile detente between Suu Kyi's movement and the administration of President Thein Sein, which has engineered sweeping reforms since taking power from a military junta last year.
But some analysts see her entry into the legislative branch as a gamble that will achieve little beyond legitimizing a regime that needs her support to end years of isolation from the West and get lingering sanctions lifted.
After the ceremony in the capital, Naypyitaw, Suu Kyi said she would not give up the struggle for democracy she has led since 1988.
"We would like our parliament to be in line with genuine democratic values. It's not because we want to remove anybody," she said in apparent reference to the military, whose unelected appointees control 25 percent of the assembly. "We just want to make the kind of improvements that will make our national assembly a truly democratic one."
That will not be easy. Suu Kyi will have almost no power in the ruling-party dominated parliament since her party will occupy only the few dozen seats it won in an April 1 by-election. But she will have an official voice in government for the first time, and the chance — however faint — to challenge and influence public policy from within.
Her National League for Democracy party's legislative debut comes 22 years after it was prevented from taking power after a landslide electoral victory in 1990. Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and the army annulled the vote result, keeping power until last year.
When the parliamentary session began last week, the NLD initially refused to join because of a dispute over the oath of office, sparking a political crisis that irked supporters eager for the party to finally enter the assembly.
The party wanted wording in the oath changed from "safeguard" to "respect" the constitution, which they have vowed to amend because it enshrines military power.
Suu Kyi backed down Monday, but the party's failure to push through even that small change underscores the immense challenges ahead in a nation still dominated by the military.
On Wednesday, Suu Kyi and several dozen of her NLD brethren recited the oath, despite their strong opposition to it.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the occasion "an important moment" for Myanmar's future and praised Thein Sein's administration for taking "strides toward democracy and national reconciliation."
"I encourage all political parties, civil society representatives and ethnic minority leaders to work together to address challenges and seize new opportunities for a more democratic, free, peaceful, and prosperous future," Clinton said.
Thein Sein's government has been widely praised for instituting reforms, including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing cease-fires with rebels, easing media censorship and holding the April 1 by-election that allowed Suu Kyi's party to enter parliament.
But more than half a million refugees remain abroad, hundreds of political prisoners are still behind bars and fierce fighting continues with ethnic Kachin insurgents in the north. This week, Washington-based watchdog Freedom House said Myanmar — also known as Burma — was still "not free," and the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the country the seventh most restricted in world.
The legislature itself was installed after a 2010 vote that the NLD boycotted and the international community decried as a sham. Now, as a parliamentary minority, the Suu Kyi-led opposition will have little power to change what it wants to change most — the constitution.
"We have to now work within the parliament as well as outside the parliament as we have been doing" all along, Suu Kyi said.
Maung Zarni, a Myanmar exile who is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, said Suu Kyi's ascent is "neither a game-changer nor a sign that Burma has reached the tipping point of democratic transition."
"Quite the contrary, it marks the most important victory (yet) for the regime's strategic leaders," he said.
Suu Kyi's rise to public office marks a reversal of circumstance for a woman who became one of the world's most prominent prisoners of conscience, held under house arrest for much of the last two decades. When the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner was finally released in late 2010, few could have imagined she would rise from democracy advocate to elected office holder in less than 18 months.
Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Thailand-based Forum for Democracy in Burma, said little would change for ordinary people, but they "have much hope in her and her party."
Over the next three years, the NLD will have to decide how to navigate the run-up to national elections in 2015.
Soe Aung said Suu Kyi will use her time in parliament to "expand the space of the opposition" by working to win over the ruling party as well as the military, and trying to convince them she is not a threat.
It is a strategy of realism, he said, because Suu Kyi knows "that without the support of the (the army), they will never be able to bring about changes in the country, the genuine changes that people would like to see."
Suu Kyi said Wednesday she has "tremendous goodwill" toward the soldiers.
The army's representatives wield enormous power. Changes to the constitution require a 75 percent majority, meaning that it is all but impossible without military approval.
Maung Zarni said the most crucial test will come in three years.
"It remains an open and serious question whether the military as an institution or the generals and ex-generals will stomach the idea — much less the reality — of a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in 2015," he said.
"But three years is a long, long time," he added. "There is nothing irreversible about Burmese politics."
Pitman reported from Bangkok.
(This version CORRECTS date in 7th paragraph.)