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Wednesday 13 December 2017

New dawn in Burma as Suu Kyi strides into parliament

Burma National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to the opening of the new parliament after decades of struggle. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tu
Burma National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to the opening of the new parliament after decades of struggle. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tu

Philip Sherwell in Naypyitaw

The new dawn of Burmese democracy was painted in vibrant hues yesterday as MPs filled parliament in a sea of orange tunics - the outfit of Aung San Suu Kyi's winning party - and tribal costumes.

The MPs gathered in celebratory mood for the historic opening session of the first democratically elected parliament since 1960 in the country also known as Myanmar.

With a spray of jasmine in her hair and in a striking pink blouse stitched with a peacock feather design of the National League for Democracy (NLD) symbol, Ms Suu Kyi led her party into power.

The formal business was brief as the MPs elected in the NLD's November landslide confirmed the party's nominations for the speaker and his deputy in the lower house.


Those appointments were the first steps in parliament's role in establishing the next government that will take office on April.

And it remained unclear who will officially lead that administration as president amid speculation that the military might still consider a waiver on the constitutional clause that currently bars Ms Suu Kyi from the top job.

The presence of serving officers in their green and blue uniforms occupying the 25pc of seats reserved for military appointees was a reminder however of the continuing influence of the armed forces. The military holds a veto over constitutional changes and also controls three key ministries.

It was nonetheless another remarkable day in Burma's dramatic transition from five decades of military rule towards a more democratic government.

The session convened 26 years after Burma's ruling generals simply ignored the result of the last fully contested elections when the NLD won with a similar landslide.

For many, it was an occasion of which they could long never have dreamed - especially for the 115 former political prisoners who were elected to the two houses as NLD candidates.

A student leader in the 1988 democracy protests, Pyone Cho spent 20 years in prison, but he was now taking his seat in the ranks of the ruling party in the grandiose parliament built by the regime that jailed him.

"I think my presence here is a sign that everyone in this country has the right to participate in politics and that is what we were struggling for all those years," he said. "It's a very exciting day but this is just the start of our work in the new parliament."

The new arrivals consistently emphasised the country's struggling peace process as their main priority.

Burma has witnessed ethnic insurgencies for nearly seven decades, but there are hopes that Ms Suu Kyi's new government will bring fresh impetus to peace negotiations.

"All this excitement will be meaningless without peace in our country," said Khin Maung Myint, an ethnic Kachin NLD MP. "We have to secure an enduring peace.

"I chose to run as an NLD candidate rather than for a Kachin party because the NLD can make a difference. I am making my voice heard now as a Kachin and an NLD MP."

Western diplomats who attended the session emphasised the country's peaceful handover of power.


"There is a wonderful atmosphere here today," said Andrew Patrick, the British ambassador. "There is lot of hard work still to be done, but the signs are certainly good. A lot of people have waited a long time for this day."

As the session was adjourned, MPs again turned their attention to Burma's favourite political parlour game - who will be president.

Ms Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, is barred from the role by a clause in then military-drafted constitution that rules out any candidate whose close relatives are foreign citizens. Her sons are both British, as was her late husband.

If that clause is not suspended, then she has said that she will nominate a figurehead to the job while she effectively governs from a position "above the presidency".

She is expected to announce a candidate this month - possibly as early as next week.

Irish Independent

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