NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Aung SanSuu Kyi completed her historic journey from political prisoner to parliamentarian Wednesday, assuming public office for the first time in a risky new strategy to work alongside Myanmar’s new reform-minded government after her 24-year struggle against military rule.
The session Wednesday cements a detente between Mrs. Suu Kyi‘s party and the administration of President Thein Sein, which came to power last year after the nation’s long-ruling army junta stepped down. Some analysts see it as a gamble in which the opposition could end up bestowing legitimacy upon a regime that needs Mrs. Suu Kyi to end years of isolation from the West and get lingering sanctions lifted.
The 66-year-old Mrs. Suu Kyi will have almost no power in the assembly, but she’ll nevertheless have an official voice in the legislative branch and the chance to challenge public policy from inside the halls of power for the first time.
Mrs. Suu Kyi‘s parliamentary debut comes after her National League for Democracy party lost its first major political battle since this Southeast Asian nation’s April 1 by-election — a bid to change the lawmakers’ oath.
The NLD last week refused to take its seats in the assembly because it opposed wording in the oath that obliges legislators to “safeguard” the constitution. The party, which has vowed to amend the document because it enshrines military power, wanted the phrasing changed to “respect.”
The party’s failure to push through even that small change, though, underscores the immense challenges ahead in a nation still dominated by the military. On Wednesday, Mrs. Suu Kyi and several dozen of her party brethren chose to compromise for now — jointly reciting the oath in the capital, Naypyitaw, as the ruling party and the army looked on.
“We have to now work within the parliament as well as outside the parliament, as we have been doing” all along, she said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement of congratulations, calling the occasion “an important moment” for Myanmar’s future.
“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,” Mrs. Clinton said.
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 occupying only a few dozen seats, the SuuKyi-led opposition will have little power to change what it wants to change most — the constitution, which allots 25 percent of assembly seats to unelected military appointees.
“We would like our parliament to be in line with genuine democratic values. It’s not because we want to remove anybody,” she said. “We just want to make the kind of improvements that will make our national assembly a truly democratic one.”
Thein Sein’s government has been widely praised for instituting sweeping reforms over the past several months, including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing cease-fires with rebels, easing press censorship and holding the April 1 by-election that allowed Mrs. Suu Kyi‘s party to enter parliament.
But more than a half-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 Myanmar — also known as Burma — was still “not free,” and the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked the country the seventh most restricted in world.