The excitement that greeted the recent electoral success of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League of Democracy party in Burma has given way to a more cautious sense of optimism.
On the one hand, the European Union has announced that it will suspend its sanctions against Burma for a one-year period, as a result of the autocratic state's recent political reforms. While the EU will continue to keep an arms embargo against the military-ruled country, other trade restrictions will be lifted on a temporary basis in order to encourage more steps toward democratization. The EU's foreign policy representative, Catherine Ashton, said the measures were intended to support further progress in Burma, "so it becomes irreversible."
On the other hand, Suu Kyi and the rest of her party, who won 45 seats in a remarkably open set of recent byelections, have already refused to take their seats in Burma's parliament, boycotting the legislature's opening session today. At issue is the wording of the parliamentary oath of office: Suu Kyi and the NLD campaigned on a pledge to change the constitution (written by the military junta), and say they will only swear an oath to "respect" the document, rather than "safeguard" it, as the current wording declares.
Both developments could prove temporary, albeit for different reasons. British foreign secretary William Hague underscored the fact the EU sanctions could soon be back in place if Burma's political reforms fail to make more progress: "We remain concerned about ethnic conflict, political prisoners, and the swearing-in of opposition members of parliament," he said. The EU decision will be reviewed in October.
As for the NLD's parliamentary boycott, party leaders say they expect the issue to be resolved soon. ''We can reach some sort of solution to this,'' said Tha Myint,a spokesman for Suu Kyi. ''The democratization process will go on. We wish to fulfill the wishes of voters, who want us to be inside the parliament.''
Burma's president, however, has said he is unwilling to change the oath. "There won't be any U-turn" on the government's position said Thein Sein from Tokyo, where he was meeting with Japanese officials.
Michelle Yeoh, who plays Suu Kyi in the upcoming biopic The Lady will be in the red chair April 30, when she'll talk to George about what it's like to play a living icon.
A WELCOME SIGHT: OPPOSITION CELEBRATES ELECTION VICTORY IN BURMA
April 2, 2012 In a scene that once seemed highly unlikely, supporters of Burma's opposition National League for Democracy filled the streets to celebrate their party's apparent victory in parliamentary byelections. While the NLD had initially claimed 43 of 45 seats, by late Monday the country's Election Commission confirmed that it had taken 40 seats, including that of party leader and recent political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wearing party colours and chanting slogans, NLD backers cheered a result that seemed to be a public repudiation of the ruling military junta, a rare show of dissent under one of the world's most repressive regimes.
Suu Kyi herself won her own electoral contest by a landslide, and heralded what she hoped was a "new era" in the country also known as Myanmar. (The military government changed the name in 1989.)
This isn't the first time that Suu Kyi has won under a popular vote. In 1990, she led the NLD to victory in multiparty elections, but the ruling junta ignored the results, put Suu Kyi under house arrest and cracked down ruthlessly against dissent.
In recent months, however, the authorities have seemed eager to present a new face to the world, and have begun ushering in some democratic reforms. Suu Kyi was released in November, 2010, and the NLD permitted to field byelection candidates soon after.
Critics have expressed skepticism that the rulers' commitment to reform is genuine; there are 664 seats in Burma's parliament, for example, and no indication that opposition forces will be able to contest the majority.
Suu Kyi herself, however, appeared unwilling to engage in cynicism yesterday. In spite of apparent voting irregularities in yesterday's contest, calling the election a "significant step" and reaching out to her adversaries: "What is important is not how many seats we may have won, but that ... the people participated in the democratic process. We invite all parties who wish to bring peace and prosperity to our country [to work together]."