Suu Kyi’s desire for oath change jeopardises progress

If it succeeds, this move will cement her party’s power; if it fails, the people will pay the price of stalled progress.

suu kyi
Critics of Suu Kyi’s party’s boycott of Parliament say they should have fought the oath law from the inside [EPA]

It was all going so well. President Thein Sein and his fellow former regime members, who now hold “ministerial positions”, are doing the unexpected; they are showing a genuine will to reform Myanmar.

Since coming to power in elections deemed neither free nor fair, in November 2010, the generals have managed to redraw the image of Myanmar as a country living under one of the worst dictatorships in the world, to the latest emerging market darling.

As many articles before this have listed, reforms have turned the world’s view of the country upside down. Prominent political prisoners have been released; ceasefire talks with ethnic groups initiated, a string of economic reforms set to take place, and dialogue has finally is finally functioning between the opposition parties and the “government”.  

The most visual changes took place last month. As opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was allowed to register her party and compete in the April 1 by-elections. The world watched as thousands poured out to the streets, adorned with National League for Democracy t-shirts and stickers. The fear known to behold the Myanma people, regarding politics at least, was seemingly no longer.

For some, it was all too good to be true, and a halt to the progress in relations between the NLD and government, was, in their eyes, inevitable. Few, however, expected it would be an NLD move which would do it.

Having won 43 of the 48 seats up for grabs, an achievement that surprised even the NLD, and reportedly shocked the government, many NLD voters were looking forward to see their MPs take up their seats in parliament.

Despite parliament reopening on April 23, they may have to wait a lot longer than expected.

An undemocratic oath

In order to begin their much-awaited work, the newly elected MPs must read an oath. The issue for the NLD is saying they will “abide by and protect” the 2008 constitution, which Suu Kyi said in her election campaigns was her first priority in parliament to amend.

Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay reports from NLD headquarters in Yangon the morning after the by-election

Since the constitution was introduced in 2008, it has been at the top of a long list of grievances voiced by Myanma political activists and ethnic groups.

It is easy to see why.

The referendum was held weeks after the devastating cyclone Nargis, which is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Instead of waiting until the communities affected managed to regain even a tiny bit of normality, the regime went ahead with a referendum, and claimed a 92.4 per cent vote in favour, amid allegations of intimidation, pre-marked ballots and other fraud.

The constitution itself has been heavily criticised for being undemocratic and acting as a safety net for the military. It rules against the prosecution of former regime members for war crimes, and gives executive power to military committees to effectively remain above the law and take over in any “emergency situation”. One of every four seats in parliament is guaranteed to the military, and vague draconian laws are protected which allow the military to punish anyone they wish for just about anything. The list does go on.

The NLD, seemingly, has no desire to enter parliament and be held to an oath which could be used against them – when they set out trying to change the constitution. Noble, maybe; symbolic, perhaps – but most likely just a waste of the NLD’s time and effort, which would be better spent in parliament trying to improve the constitution, rather than unnecessarily irritating the ruling elite, who are still coming to terms with the NLD’s electoral success.

It is incredibly unlikely the former generals-cum-ministers are going to budge on this one. There have been many surprises in recent months, but with the constitution offering the regime so much security, and the transition in such early days, it would be difficult for Thein Sein to change it, even if he wanted to, as he faces so much pressure from his military peers. Despite having amended the wording in the law, the NLD are putting Thein Sein in a very difficult position. If he adjusts the oath, hardliners will criticise him for giving too much to the NLD, and, for future political reforms, it is most likely counterproductive.

Without strategy?

And so far it seems Thein Sein has no desire to even discuss the possibility of changing it. Speaking to reporters in Japan, Thein Sein said he welcomed Suu Kyi to parliament but would not change the wording of the oath to “respect” as the NLD has requested. His final remarks might eliminate any doubts about his position on the issue: “Suu Kyi should work for the people, rather than her own party.”

The same sentiment is being voiced further than Nay Pyi Daw’s military circles. Journalists, civil society groups, diplomats and many NLD voters are all left guessing as to why the NLD remains so set on changing the wording. With many thinking time would be better spent making policies, and establishing vital arguments for the country in parliament, if the NLD moves forward without strategy, they are at danger of losing the support and faith of many who have more pressing concerns, such as unemployment and poverty.

The majority of NLD’s supporters, who have little concern for oath wording and more for solid changes, will lose out as hardline military officers dominate parliament.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, after yet another visit from a foreign minister – this time Italian – Suu Kyi, said it was a “technical issue”, and that it would not end in political deadlock. NLD spokesman, Nyan Win, told reporters the party expected the issue would be resolved within ten days. One would hope the NLD’s confidence has some foundation, but with little sign from the government that they will budge, it seems the issue might go on longer than the NLD expects it to.  

Thein Sein, and his fellow reformists, will be keen to keep Suu Kyi in the picture. Not only does this help with legitimacy but they know it will also be beneficial for the country. However, recent shifts in parliament show that hardliners and military leaders were already worried about the NLD’s influence in parliament.

At the opening on April 23, 59 junior officers were swapped for senior lieutenants, a move some argue was to place loyal military officers, seemingly impervious to the NLD’s influence, in parliament. Perhaps this a sign the military is getting a little uncomfortable with so much change.

If she does pull it off, Suu Kyi may have made a very clever move. The NLD gets a good start to parliament, showing the military they mean business,  and that, after years of persecution for their democratic dreams, they cannot be messed around anymore. It also helps Suu Kyi to keep some of her own hardline members within the NLD, who feel she is going too fast with a military regime yet to prove themselves as reformists. It also saves the NLD from any risk of punishment later in parliament for trying change the constitution.

Risking the people

If, however, the wording is not changed, the NLD is risking a lot. While it will show the government is not completely committed to reforms, it will also confirm to many moderates the NLD’s lack of pragmatism. Many have already said the NLD should be changing the laws in parliament not from the outside, and are unlikely to be changing the constitution before 2015, anyway.

Meanwhile, the West – like the EU’s recent lifting of sanctions  – will continue to reward the government for its reforms. The majority of NLD supporters, who have little concern for oath wording and more for solid changes, will lose out as hardline military officers dominate parliament at a crucial time for policy making. Many were hoping the 43 NLD MPs would have been there to voice their electorate’s concerns.

As usual, those who will lose out are the people of Myanmar. For too long they have dreamed of a better standard of living, free of corruption, unemployment and poor health services.

William Lloyd George is a freelance correspondent reporting on under reported stories around the globe.

Follow him on Twitter: @W_LloydGeorge