Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took a historic oath yesterday to join a parliamentary system crafted by the generals who locked her away for much of her long struggle against dictatorship, ushering in a dramatic new political era.
The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s debut in a parliament stacked with uniformed soldiers could accelerate reforms that have already included the most sweeping changes in the former British colony since a 1962 military coup, including the release of political prisoners and a loosening of strict media controls.
However, the wildly popular daughter of assassinated independence hero Aung San, also faces the difficult task of managing the expectations of a nation impatient for change and the hopes of Burmese who see her as a sole beacon for democratic freedom.
It is unclear how rapidly she can deliver on her ambitious campaign promises, including the overhaul of Myanmar’s army-drafted constitution, in a legislature dominated by former members of the military junta who ruled for nearly half a century before ceding to a quasi-civilian government last year.
“Only time will tell,” she replied when asked about the day’s significance, as she waded through a chaotic throng of reporters on her way to the chamber where she took the oath in a shortened 40-minute session.
Later, she said: “I have always been cautiously optimistic about developments. In politics, you also have to be cautiously optimistic.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s entry into parliament comes a month after her party’s landslide victory in a by-election and two days after backing down in a standoff over the wording of an oath to protect the constitution sworn by all new members of parliament.
The parliamentary session was to have ended on Monday, but was extended in part to allow Aung San Suu Kyi and fellow members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to take their seats.
Entering the chamber, she at first sat down on her own, near the block reserved for serving military men who have a quarter of the seats under the constitution, and seemed relaxed as other lawmakers greeted her.
She then lined up with colleagues to take the oath, including a pledge to uphold a constitution her party wants to change because it gives the military a leading political role.
Asked if she felt awkward working with the military, she replied, “Not at all, I have tremendous goodwill towards the military. It doesn’t in any way bother me to sit with them.”
Her comments reflect the dramatic scale of change in Myanmar, given the military’s past treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was first detained by the army in 1989, and then spent 15 of the next 21 years in detention until her release from house arrest in November 2010.
Many lawmakers hope Aung San Suu Kyi’s parliamentary debut will be a catalyst for further reform by the government of Burmese President Thein Sein, a former general who has freed hundreds of political prisoners, legalized trade unions and protests, and started a dialogue with ethnic minority rebels.
“Parliament will be stronger because of her good relationship with the international community,” said Khin Maung Yi, a lawmaker from the National Democratic Force party.
“We parliamentarians have wanted her in the legislature for a long time ... Many laws have to be changed and amended,” he added.