Myanmar ruling party rejects Suu Kyi demand to change oath
NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (Reuters) – Myanmar’s ruling, army-backed party on Monday rejected demands by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to change parliament’s oath of office, the first clear sign of friction since the democracy leader’s party swept historic by-elections.
The dispute marred Monday’s opening of parliament, as Suu Kyi and other members of her party refused to take their seats, denting an image of transformation on a day when the European Union is all but certain to become the first Western power to suspend sanctions that isolated Myanmar for two decades.
The expected EU decision on sanctions would be a boon for Myanmar’s long-stagnant economy and could prompt the United States and Canada to follow suit and pave the way for development loans and a flood of foreign investment in a trove of natural resources such as oil, gas, timber and gemstones.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy’s (NLD) wants to replace the words “safeguard the constitution” with “respect the constitution” in the oath sworn by new members of parliament.
Suu Kyi promised supporters that, if elected, she would seek to revise the 2008 army-drafted constitution that gives the military wide powers, including the ability to appoint key cabinet members, take control of the country in a state of emergency and occupy a quarter of seats in parliament.
But the secretary general of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Htay Oo, said his party would not introduce any proposal to change the oath.
“The wording would have no impact on the development of the country,” he told Reuters.
President Thein Sein, a reformist former general, told reporters in Japan that he also had no plans to change the wording of the oath, Kyodo news agency reported.
The NLD wants to reduce the military’s enshrined political role after five decades of often brutal army rule in the former British colony also known as Burma, but its standoff over the oath risks alienating supporters.
“The timing is all wrong,” said Aung Zaw, a Myanmar expert and editor of the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine. “It’s quite a divisive issue and a lot of people are very disappointed because there are so many pressing issues that the NLD needs to be handling right now, in parliament.”
The NLD petitioned Thein Sein and the house speakers to make the change after winning all but one of 44 seats it contested in April 1 by-elections, a landslide that raised hopes among many people that she would accelerate reforms in a parliament stacked with former generals.
“In any country, even the United States, they have to agree to the defense, not the respect, of the constitution,” said Khin Shwe, an upper-house member of the USDP, which won a 2010 election, which Suu Kyi’s party boycotted, amid opposition complaints of rigging.
“If the NLD wants to change this, they need to do it from inside parliament,” he added in an interview with Reuters at parliament in the new capital, Naypyitaw, holding up a list of countries whose lawmakers swear an oath to protect the constitution.
Thein Sein’s dramatic reforms of the past year include the freeing hundreds of political prisoners, allowing more media freedom, reforming the currency and holding peace talks with ethnic minority rebels.
The question of changing the oath may come down to a vote of the bicameral parliament dominated by allies of the former military junta, who might not be sympathetic to the NLD after it was dealt a crushing by-election defeat.
“The president has not got the power to change the wording in the oath so it needs to be decided in parliament,” senator Aye Maung, leader of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, told Reuters.
“Since most of the lawmakers are USDP members they will play the major role when this proposal is decided,” he said.
The NLD seems convinced the issue will be settled this week and has told many of its elected MPs to stay in the main city of Yangon, where the party has its headquarters, to discuss strategy, one MP told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
UNLIKELY TO AFFECT EASING OF SANCTIONS
The standoff is unlikely to affect the easing of sanctions, with the West bent on rolling back restrictions to allow deeper engagement and investment by companies eager to take advantage of one of Asia’s last frontier markets.
Australia said it would lift financial and travel restrictions on 260 people and normalize trade ties. Japan said on Saturday it would resume loans to Myanmar and write off 303.5 billion yen ($3.72 billion) of its debt.
The United States is tipped to name its Myanmar envoy, Derek Mitchell, as ambassador after an upgrade of ties. The Treasury Department last week decided to permit financial transactions to support certain humanitarian and development projects.
Later on Monday, the European Union is expected to unfreeze assets and end travel bans on certain individuals and suspend, but not lift, bans on investments and sales related to timber and the mining of gemstones and precious metals.
“We want to check that the regime is progressing on the path of democracy,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Friday. “There is progress, but we haven’t reached the final objective yet.”
(Additional reporting by Thu Rein Hlaing; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)