Suu Kyi climbdown hints at pragmatism in Myanmar

BANGKOK - For over two decades pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi defied Myanmar's army rulers with steely resolve, but analysts say she has now embraced compromise, even if that means putting principles aside.

The Nobel laureate was sworn in Wednesday as a member of parliament, a week after initially refusing to take the oath of office over the wording of the army-drafted constitution.

She climbed down after President Thein Sein failed to offer concessions, indicating compromise may now be the order of the day as Myanmar creeps towards democracy in an astonishing reform process.

But the delay meant that on Monday when UN chief Ban Ki-moon became the first foreign leader to make a speech at the nation's new parliament, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy colleagues were conspicuously absent.

"The NLD has given the impression, once again, of having missed the train," according to Renaud Egreteau, a Myanmar expert at the University of Hong Kong.

Many of Suu Kyi's supporters will welcome her historic debut in political office following the NLD's sweep in April 1 by-elections, held after an historic national vote in 2010.

But Egreteau says there are indications of a divide within the NLD between hardliners reluctant to work with the military, and a more pragmatic group that Suu Kyi is increasingly inclined to join.

"Maybe we will see Aung San Suu Kyi finally free herself from the hardliners of her party," he said.

But division is likely to stir more sharp internal debate. Egreteau said the NLD's "uncle" figures are still deeply respected. "And in the Burmese culture, it is not easy to question the authority of the elders."

Suu Kyi and her party have consistently denounced the 2008 constitution which granted deep powers to the military which ruled the country for decades.

But in her new role as an MP, Suu Kyi will work within that same document, having a say on a range of issues in the poor but resource-rich country such as foreign aid, development, health and education reform.

And with only about ten per cent of parliamentary seats in the NLD's hands, she will have to cede ground on some issues in order to score wins in others, experts say.

This atmosphere of give and take is far from that which swirled around her first political speech in 1988, when a student revolt against the generals was brutally quelled, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people.

The junta went on to subject Suu Kyi to a total of 15 years under house arrest as she became a global symbol of staunch resistance to oppression.

Her iron will was embedded in the minds of her supporters by an incident in July 1998, when she spent six full days in her car, stuck on a bridge 26 kilometres (15 miles) from Yangon after the junta blocked her path.

Determined to make the journey, she only returned home when a soldier grabbed the wheel and drove her back home.

Although celebrated in the West for her self-sacrifice and resolve, she was accused by the junta of "steadfastly refusing any attempt at persuasion."

But times have changed profoundly since President Thein Sein came into power last year following the junta's self-dissolution.

And as all sides shuffle closer, conciliatory language may become the currency of the political bargaining that lies ahead.

Tha Sein, a member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party which represents one of Myanmar's ethnic minorities, said his party was both free and potentially willing to work with the NLD.

"If they want to work in accordance with our program, we will stand with them. Otherwise, we will not," he told AFP, adding he was thrilled to see a new opposition force joining the parliament.

Even the military appointees who make up 25 per cent of the parliament sometimes depart from the strict partisan line, Tha Sein said.

"We found that members of the military voted in support of our proposals sometimes, when voting is conducted by secret ballot," he said.

As for amending the constitution - an issue the NLD has proclaimed as a priority - experts predict it will have to be pushed into the background in the interests of political calculation.

"Some government officials have said privately that the constitution was not written in stone," said Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia director with the International Crisis Group.

But by campaigning for changes like a reduction in the military's presence in parliament, the NLD could "make soldiers the opponents rather than allies of change".

The party has now to prepare for the next major step on the road towards democracy - general elections to be held in 2015.

"There is important work to be done to keep the momentum of reform going", Della-Giacoma added.

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