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 filled with soldiers could accelerate reforms that have already included the most sweeping changes in the former British colony since a military coup 50 years ago. Signs of change have already prompted some countries to suspend sanctions.
But the daughter of assassinated independence hero Aung San also faces the difficulty of managing the expectations of a nation impatient for change and the hopes of Burmese who see her as a beacon for freedom.
It is unclear how rapidly she can deliver on her ambitious campaign promises, including the overhaul of Burma’s army-drafted constitution, in a legislature dominated by former members of the 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 of the day’s significance, as she waded through reporters on her way to the chamber.
Later, she added: “I have always been cautiously optimistic about developments. In politics, you also have to be cautiously optimistic.”
Ms 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 stand-off 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 Ms 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 MPs 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.
Ms Suu Kyi said she remained open on the question of revising the oath, saying: “The key to this is flexibility and practicality.”
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 change in Burma, given the military’s past treatment of Ms 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 MPs hope Ms Suu Kyi’s parliamentary debut will be a catalyst for further reform by president Thein Sein, a former general who has freed hundreds of political prisoners, loosened media controls, legalised trade unions and protests and started a dialogue with ethnic minority rebels. 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 that Burma was still “not free,” and the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the country the seventh most-restricted in world.