Burma's long-time democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has officially been sworn in as a member of parliament, taking public office for the first time after spending much of the past two decades under house arrest.The Nobel laureate took the oath of office Wednesday to enter Burma's lower legislative house, ending a parliamentary boycott that had threatened to interrupt the country's political reform process.
For more than a week, the 66-year-old opposition leader and her National League for Democracy had refused to take the oath because it required them to “safeguard” the constitution, which was drafted by Burma's former military rulers.
But the NLD earlier this week agreed to take the pledge, while vowing to push for constitutional change through legislative action.
Aung San Suu Kyi said after taking the oath that she has no qualms about sitting next to Burmese military members, who still make up the bulk of the country's parliament. But she said she would like to see the country's legislative bodies become more democratic.
“We would like our parliament to be in line with genuine democratic values. It's not because we want to remove anybody, as such. We just want to make the kind of improvements that would make our national assembly truly democratic.”
Parliament member Win Oo of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party praised Aung San Suu Kyi's decision to back down from her parliamentary boycott.
“The fact that Suu Kyi has come to the parliament is good, because as we have said so many times, if we want to achieve things for the benefit of the people and the country we should let sleeping dogs lie.”
The NLD, which won 43 of the 45 available seats in April 1 by-elections, now becomes the main opposition party in Burma's bicameral legislature that is still dominated by military-backed political parties. Observers say the NLD will likely not have enough power to affect much immediate change to the constitution, which sets aside a quarter of all seats in parliament for unelected military members.
Aung San Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory in general elections in 1990. But military leaders at the time refused to relinquish power and the victors were refused entry into parliament. The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections that ended decades of military rule in Burma.
Since then, President Thein Sein and his new nominally civilian government have enacted a series of democratic reforms, including easing press restrictions and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
The international community has responded to the reforms by lifting many of the long-standing sanctions against Burma. But some rights groups are reacting to the reforms with guarded optimism.
Benjamin Zawacki, an Asia researcher at Amnesty International, told VOA that the global community should not forget that Burma has much work to do, particularly in regards to releasing political prisoners.
“While we certainly celebrate that roughly half, or more perhaps than half of political prisoners in the country have been released, we feel like attention needs to remain on those yet to be released, so that the job can be finished.”
Zawacki says international calls for the release of additional political prisoners in Burma have been muted following the release of several high-profile activists since May 2011. But rights groups estimate that hundreds of prisoners of conscience are yet to be released.