In a turnaround, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Monday that she and other newly elected representatives from her party will take their seats in parliament, ending a deadlock with the authorities over the wording of an oath for new legislators.
The move came as U.N. chief Ban Ki Moon urged further lifting of international sanctions on Burma in a speech to the national assembly the same day.
Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters in Rangoon that the 43 members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) will take the oath required for them to join Wednesday’s national assembly meetings, but will not drop their opposition to the wording of the pledge.
“We have decided to comply at this juncture because we do not want to create a political conflict and we do not want to have any political tension,” she said.
The party, which swept nearly all the seats in April 1 by-elections but boycotted its parliamentary debut last week over the oath, will work from within parliament to make changes to the oath and the constitution on which it is based, she said.
The NLD wants the wording changed so that lawmakers swear to “respect” the constitution instead of “safeguard” it.
"Politics is an issue of give and take," Aung San Suu Kyi said. "We are not giving up, we are just yielding to the aspirations of the people."
Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Student Group, which led 1988 student protests, said the NLD’s decision gives the people what they want and will help facilitate national reconciliation.
“This makes the voters very happy, relieves their worry, and gains their trust," he said.
"We all witness that [Aung San Suu Kyi] reviews even her own policies and can come up with appropriate solutions, when needed, for national reconciliation.”
Aung San Suu Kyi said her party made the decision after requests from ethnic minority lawmakers, who urged the NLD members to first take their seats and then try from within parliament to change the oath.
Any proposed change to the oath, which would require a change to the constitution, would need the support of 20 percent of the parliament to be discussed and 75 percent to pass.
Burma’s ethnic minority parties, which hold a small percentage of the seats in parliament, represent groups who have long been left out of the military-dominated government.
Khun Tun Oo, a former political prisoner and leader among the Shan ethnic group, welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s move, pointing out that the NLD will need the support of ethnic minority parties to make proposed changes.
"I see this as a good step for the country. This is a good result of bilateral compromise without retribution. We hope there will be this way of resolving problems in all future issues,’ he said.
“Changes to the constitution will not be easy, as the military has 25 percent [of the parliamentary seats]. Everyone, including the ethnic groups, will have to join in to work toward [changing] it,” he said.
Aye Thar Aung, a leader among the Rakhine ethnic group and head of the Arakan League for Democracy, said that amendments to the constitution, framed by the previous ruling military junta, are a key issue for ethnic minority parties.
“This constitution is a barrier especially for the [country’s] ethnic minorities,” he said.
“If the changes required for this small issue of the phrasing of the oath are so difficult, how are we going to [be able to] change the essential, crucial parts of the 2008 constitution?” he said.
“Earlier we had talks about the need for amending the constitution, and [what we understand is that] the government officials in the parliament want to do it and see the need to do it, and will change it when the time comes.”
“We believe this constitution must be changed as it isn't in line with democratic principles,” he said.
Ban Ki Moon visit
The resolution to the standoff came as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, in an address to Burma’s parliament Monday, urged further lifting of sanctions by the international community.
"The best way for the international community to support reform is to invest in it," he said, in the first address by a foreign dignitary to the country's national assembly.
Western governments had said that the April by-election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi voted into office would be a key test of whether they would lift the sanctions, which were imposed as measures against human rights abuses perpetrated by the former military junta.
International NGOs have warned against lifting the sanctions, saying that reform in Burma has not gone far enough, as basic political power remains with the country’s military.
The European Union, Australia, and Canada have lifted most sanctions on Burma and Japan recently waived U.S. $3.7 billion of the country’s debt.
But the United States has maintained its main trade sanctions on the country, saying that it wants to have leverage to support further democratic reform and to push for an end to ethnic conflict.
The U.N. chief also called for an end to the conflict, which has gripped the country’s border regions for decades.
Continued heavy fighting in Kachin State, in the far north of the country, "is inconsistent with the successful conclusion of the ceasefire agreements with all other major groups,” he said.
"The Kachin people should no longer be denied the opportunity that a ceasefire and a political agreement can bring for peace and development," he added.
Ban, who is due to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, welcomed the NLD’s move to end the row over the oath and join parliament.
"This is encouraging. I respect her decision. Leaders should work in the long-term interests of the nation," he said.
Reported by Nyan Winn Aung and Zaw Moe Kyaw for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.