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Suu Kyi as Lawmaker

BANGKOK, Apr 2 2012 (IPS) - Following her historic victory in Sunday’s by-elections Aung San Suu Kyi takes on a new role as opposition lawmaker, after a 22-year existence as Myanmar’s most famous political prisoner.

The 66-year-old’s presence in parliament will be fortified by other candidates from her National League for Democracy (NLD) triumphant in the landmark mini-poll on Apr.1. An informal tally by NLD has shown the party winning 40 of the 45 seats up for grabs in the 664-member bicameral legislature.

“It is not so much our triumph as a triumph of the people, who have decided that they must be involved in the political process of this country,” the beaming Nobel Peace laureate told thousands of cheering supporters gathered outside the party’s headquarters in Yangon, the former capital, on Monday.

“We hope this will be the beginning of a new era when there will be more emphasis on the role of the people in everyday politics of our country,” she added.

The voters who ensured her place in the third elections in Myanmar (also called Burma) in 50 years come from the Karen ethnic minority. It was in the Kawhmu township, home to this impoverished ethnic community on the southwestern fringes of Yangon, that Suu Kyi contested for her first seat in the 440-member ‘Pyithu Hluttaw’ (Lower House).

Suu Kyi has set her sights on the need for the rule of law and to amend the 2008 constitution among her priorities in the legislature, a body dominated by Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a proxy of the Southeast Asian nation’s last military junta, and a bloc of non-elected military officers.

In the Lower House, the USDP has 219 seats following a fraud-plagued 2010 general elections – which the NLD boycotted – and the military bloc enjoys 110 seats. And, in the ‘Amyotha Hluttaw’, the Upper House, the USDP controls 123 seats and the military bloc, 56 seats.

The small numbers on the opposition benches will include the National Democratic Force (NDF), a breakaway faction of the NLD, and a clutch of ethnic minority parties and independents.

While the NLD will only add marginal weight to the opposition numbers, it is Suu Kyi’s performance in parliament that analysts say will serve as a yardstick to measure how much space a “loyal opposition” will enjoy in Myanmar’s changing political landscape under President Thein Sein.

And besides the reformist Thein Sein, whose one-year-old quasi-civilian government has been dismantling five decades of oppressive military rule, Suu Kyi will also have to engage with the powerful speaker of the Lower House, Shwe Man, a former general like Thein Sein, who is also competing for the reformist’s mantle.

“All sides will have to adjust to the new realities to pursue the current pace of reform,” says Aung Naing Oo, deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute, a think tank helping to shape public policies in Myanmar. “The government will have to come to terms with a strong voice like Aung San Suu Kyi’s in parliament for the first time.”

She will have to negotiate with the USDP and the military bloc if she wants to “expand her role from being a minority member in parliament to introducing new laws,” he told IPS. “This means even reaching out to the army chief (Gen. Min Aung Hlaing) who directs the votes of the military bloc in the parliament.”

The “surprising” presence of reform-minded parliamentarians within the pro-government camp will be a fertile ground for Suu Kyi to establish her opposition credentials, adds Win Min, a Myanmar national security expert. “She had a friendly meeting with Shwe Man during a recent visit to Naypidaw (the capital).”

She could also play a “balancing role” to help “reduce the ongoing tension between the parliament and the president since both need her,” he explained in an interview. “The president will need her to help lift the (economic) sanctions (imposed by the United States and the European Union) and the speaker will need her to increase its power in a non-threatening way.”

For Myanmarese like Zinn Linn a vibrant opposition in parliament harks back to an era before the 1962 military coup. “They were known for their passionate debates and open challenges to the then prime minister U Nu,” said the 65-year-old who lives in exile in Bangkok. “The government’s programmes came in for severe scrutiny.”

The opposition heroes of that era, including Aung Than, an uncle of Suu Kyi, were part of the left-leaning bloc that was challenging the U Nu administration, elected to power as the country’s first government after colonial rule ended.

“The political and parliamentary culture of that time was shaped by British traditions, so the role of an opposition was accepted,” Zin Linn told IPS.

There were few expectations of such a revival following the return of opposition politics after the 2010 general elections. The previous British parliamentary traditions had, after all, given way to the dominant military culture that had crushed all dissent since 1962.

Yet Suu Kyi’s arrival could change the equation following the by-elections. “The government has permitted that space and it has been received positively,” says David Scott Mathieson, Burma researcher for the global rights campaigner Human Rights Watch.

“The opposition is not in any way close to being robust, but what they have done, using the legislative process in a limited way, has surprised many people,” he explained to IPS. “Suu Kyi joining these ranks would help in this transition.”

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