By C. S. Kuppuswamy
Aung San Suu Ki and the other members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), recently elected in the by-elections held on 01 April 2012, did not attend the opening session of the parliament on 23 April 2012. The reason for the same is their objection to the wordings of the swearing-in-oath that is to be taken by law makers. NLD wants the wordings in the oath “safeguard the constitution” to be amended as “respect the constitution”. This is more to do with semantics rather than political strategy.
How the wording matters is aptly narrated by Peter Popham in his book “The Lady and the Peacock – The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi (pages 390, 391). He writes that Dr. Gene Sharp was trying to convince General Bo Mya of Karen Independence Army for adopting “non-violent conflict” as a strategy for achieving his goal and failed. But when the same “non-violent conflict” was reworded as “political defiance” it worked and Bo Mya acceded.
The matter has been referred to the Constitutional Court, which is still to decide on the issue. Since the oath is contained in an appendix to the Constitution, one wonders whether it can be changed without the approval of 75% of the parliament.
Aung San Suu Kyi commented on this by saying “we are not boycotting, but we are just waiting for the right time to go”. NLD spokesperson and lawyer Nyan Win said that the party is awaiting a reply from the President to whom a letter has been sent in this regard. He was also hopeful of any early settlement of the issue.
President Thein Sein who was away in Japan on a five day visit told reporters on 23 April 2012 that Suu Kyi was welcome in the Parliament, but “She is the one who should decide whether to join”. On the changes suggested in the oath he said “It is possible to make a revision if it serves the public’s interest”. Incidentally he had a one to one meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi after the by-elections though the discussions were not made public.
There has been wide spread criticism of the NLD in the local and media in exile with the apprehension that this “principled stance could back fire”.
Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, questions the game plan behind this move and considers the timing awkward. He also writes that some political analysts speculate that there is an internal rift among the members of the NLD. He has also expressed that the NLD has disappointed the masses who are waiting for the NLD in the parliament to raise some substantial issues concerning the common man.
Bridget Welsh, associate professor at Singapore Management University told al-Jazeera that “This could lead to a backlash in the international community. Also it could lead to a backlash domestically, because I think it will be very hard to translate it to ordinary people who voted for her, they may feel a sense of betrayal. Finally, of course, this could jeopardize the relationship that’s been moving the process forward”.
This abstention in the parliament by the NLD tantamounts to boycott though the NLD may not call it so. NLD does not seem to have assessed the risk involved in taking such a stand. There is still lack of trust on the administration. One wonders whether it is tactically sound to confront the ruling party and the administration at the outset even before entering the parliament.
President Thein Sein is an embarrassing situation. If he fails to compromise, the parliament without the opposition, will lose the legitimacy for which he has worked for all these days. If he does, he is going to face more criticism and resistance to reforms from his erstwhile colleagues.
There is a threat of a sudden roadblock in the reform process, which perhaps could have been avoided.