Published November 20, 2014
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Thursday she was hopeful a dispute over Myanmar's legislative oath would be overcome soon, calling it a "technical problem" that should not end in political deadlock.
Suu Kyi and members of her political party are refusing to take their seats in parliament over the oath's wording, a move that risks unraveling the fragile and unprecedented detente between the opposition and the military-backed government.
The party objects to phrasing that obligates them to "safeguard the constitution" — a document they have vowed to amend because it was drafted under military rule and ensures the army inordinate power. The party wants "safeguard" replaced with "respect," a change made in other Myanmar laws.
Speaking during a news conference after meeting Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi, Suu Kyi said she hoped the "problem will be smoothed over without too much difficulty before too long, and that we'll be able to serve our country not just outside parliament — as we have been doing for the last 20 odd years — but also from within the national assembly."
Terzi's visit came three days after the European Union suspended sanctions Monday to reward the wave of reforms spearheaded by President Thein Sein's administration since it took power a year ago from the country's long-ruling junta.
Terzi said he met Thein Sein as well and the president was "fully aware" that sanctions were only suspended for one year — not lifted — and that the EU wants be sure the Southeast Asian nation's reforms "do not stop or even slow down."
The April 1 by-elections were considered a major part of that progress. But if the opposition fails to take it seats, the oath dispute could spiral into a major setback.
Some pro-opposition exiles have said Suu Kyi's lawmakers are picking a needless fight and that doing so before even entering parliament will achieve little.
But changing the constitution was a fundamental part of the National League for Democracy party's political platform in the run-up to this month's poll, and Suu Kyi said changing the wording of the oath was crucial and the country's laws should be consistent.
"We'd like to regard it is a technical problem rather than a political one, and we would hope that others will look upon it this way and not try to push it to the extent that it becomes a political deadlock," she added. "I am hopeful that it will not get to (that) point."
On Monday, Thein Sein said the oath could be revised "if it serves the public's interest."
The opposition's failure to join parliament has irked some of Suu Kyi's backers, who are eager to see the person who has stood up to Myanmar's military for 23 years finally take her seat. The ballot was the first Suu Kyi's party has participated in since 1990 — when it won a landslide victory that was promptly annulled by the army.
Suu Kyi acknowledged the disappointment, but cautioned: "There are going to be difficulties. Not just now, but ahead as well. We'll just have to get over them."
The constitution, created in 2008, can only be amended by a 75 percent majority vote within parliament. But the lawmakers' oath is in an appendix, and people who have studied the issue says it is unclear if it can be changed by other means, like with a court ruling.
Getting the 75 percent support could prove formidable, even if Suu Kyi's party were sitting in the legislature. The assembly is overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling party, which is reeling from its crushing election defeat earlier this month.
Moreover, 25 percent of seats are reserved for the military, which replaced about one-third of its appointees when the latest session began Monday. Majors were ousted in favor of older, higher-ranking colonels, lieutenant colonels and generals, a move that seems to indicate the army was keen to remove young cadres who might have been more easily swayed by the opposition.