Asia-Pacific Ben Hartley

What’s In an Oath? Suu Kyi and the Political Dilemmas of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar

Suu Kyi swears a parliamentary oath to safeguard the constitution of Myanmar.

In recent weeks, Western states have begun easing sanctions as a result of the Myanmar’s increased pluralism, the most notable example being Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to Parliament. But in the context of new investment and economic growth, the military regime has paradoxically positioned itself to consolidate power and isolate Suu Kyi through political legitimacy.

The difference between the words  ‘respect’ and ‘safeguard’ may not mean a lot to you or me. But if you were to ask Aung San Suu Kyi, Noble Peace laureate and long imprisoned opposition leader, the answer would likely be that it is substantial. Last week, Suu Kyi in a clear sign of acquiescence to the military backed government, agreed to drop her demand to replace the words “safeguard the constitution” with “respect the constitution” in the Parliamentary oath of office.

The difference in phrasing, no small matter, opens legitimate questions as to the degree of political freedom granted to lawmakers in Myanmar as Western countries ease sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation as a reward for increased pluralism. ‘Respecting’ implies the ability to change the constitution’s language. ‘Safeguarding’ implies a legalistic and fiduciary obligation to defending its content.

Suu Kyi, now elected to Parliament, faces a serious long term dilemma. Continue to protest the regime and risk appearing against the newfound economic benefits of liberalization, or condone a regime that needs her support in the eyes of the people and the international community to govern legitimately.

Condoning the government and continuing the process of easing sanctions will deliver clear economic and social benefits to the country. Last week the United States loosened sanctions to allow private US charities and NGOs to do work in the isolated country. The US Treasury’s actions eased restrictions on private groups working in the areas of democratic development, sport, and education

The IMF, for its part, worked discretely but closely with the central bank of Myanmar in preparation for the April 2nd flotation of its currency, the Kyat, and the EU recently lifted a ban on investing in 52 companies controlled by the Myanmar government and lifted travel bans and asset freezes on 491 people with close ties to the regime. Even the economically devastated state of Japan recently cancelled $3.7-billion in debt owed by Myanmar and restarted development loans.

If Suu Kyi condones the government’s actions, it will allow the regime to take credit for new benefits delivered by the international community, and will dilute her voice to merely a contributory piece of a larger successful narrative. Criticism of her being co-opted by the regime will result, and government officials will permanently retain benefits previously denied under sanctions.

Alternatively, Suu Kyi could continue to resist. Rumours abound that if she won a seat in Parliament she would be offered a place in the government as the head of an influential committee, or even the position of Foreign Affairs Minister. Should she refuse and continue to protest, she will be acting against the forces of foreign investment that will contribute to tangible short-term development in the newly opened markets of Myanmar.

Thus, if Suu Kyi should resist but retain her elected position in Parliament, the easing of sanctions will paradoxically contribute to the regime’s consolidation of power. In this sense, Suu Kyi’s Parliamentary victory marks a strategic victory for the regime’s leadership. By vesting her with political legitimacy, Suu Kyi will lose the agency needed criticize the underpinnings of the regime she now participates in. At once, the military regime will have succeeded in opening the country to foreign investment, purchasing enough political capital to make peace with armed rebel groups and the international community, and co-opting the regime’s most vocal critic into political silence.

A key indicator will be Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s, stance on the new foreign investment law, which sets out land use terms, legal structures and incentives for foreign investment for the foreseeable future. As the international financial institutions and donor countries prepare to gather in Myanmar to coordinate aid flows, the voice given, and the opinions expressed by the NLD will offer a window into the strategy of the opposition party.

As foreign investors line up to do business in Myanmar, it is important to note that no system-wide political progress can occur while the military controls the largest Parliamentary block. The true test of democratic development will take place in 2015, when national elections are held. This will represent an opportunity for Suu Kyi and her NLD to take power and launch an agenda that could range from small scale reform to full regime change. How aggressively the NLD positions themselves on policy issues such as the foreign investment law will likely determine whether or not the military regime, who in the meantime will enjoy the benefits of open markets, will even allow the NLD the opportunity to legitimately take power.

While a more thorough analysis of the NLD’s political decision making will have to take place in the run up to the 2015 elections, the key question becomes: was Suu Kyi’s acceptance of the oath a choice to lose a battle, but win the wider war? Or was it instead the first of many decisions where the military regime will use her position of legitimacy in Parliament force her to choose between her own agency and the wellbeing of her people.

Ben Hartley
Ben Hartley was a Research Analyst with the NATO Association of Canada. He hold a BAH from Queen's University, where he worked as a research assistant at the Queen's Centre for International Relations. Ben specializes in international trade and non-proliferation, and completed an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.