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Myanmar opposition ends boycott; U.N. calls for eased sanctions

April 30, 2012 |  8:17 am

Myanmar's main opposition party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, agreed to end its weeklong boycott of parliament and swear an oath to a constitution it has resisted
YANGON, Myanmar and NEW DELHI -- Myanmar's main opposition party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, agreed Monday to end its weeklong boycott of parliament and swear an oath to a constitution it has resisted.

The decision came as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the country's transition to democracy and called on the West to lift economic sanctions.

Officials with the opposition National League for Democracy said the newly elected lawmakers planned to take their seats in parliament Wednesday.

Suu Kyi said she was not backing down. "Politics is an issue of give and take," she told reporters in the commercial capital of Yangon. "We are not giving up; we are just yielding to the aspirations of the people."

The apparent reversal suggests that the group wasn't making much progress in getting the oath changed. Its leaders may have decided that the issue wasn't worth making a prolonged stand over and that it risked making them look petty in the eyes of the 2 million supporters who voted for them, analysts said.   

"The wording in the oath doesn't matter," said Maung Wuntha, the Yangon-based editor of the People's Age, a weekly journal. "The most important thing is Aung San Suu Kyi and her party's candidates should enter the parliament. ... I don't think that the parliament will resent her and make it more difficult for her to do reform."

Suu Kyi’s long-banned party, which opted to boycott the 2010 general election, won 43 out of 45 seats in by-elections this month. Party members initially balked at taking their seats when parliament opened April 23, insisting the government change the wording to "respect" rather than "safeguard" the constitution.

But digging in too hard over the oath could have raised questions among foreign aid groups, overseas governments and hard-liners at home concerning the party's willingness to engage in practical politics rather than confrontation and political grandstanding, analysts said.

"Disarray in the reform process will only strengthen the hands of conservatives who have grave misgivings," said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus with the Australian Defense Force Academy. "They will say 'We told you so.'"

Suu Kyi and her party have opposed the 2008 constitution on the grounds that it guarantees a quarter of all parliamentary seats for the military and doesn't safeguard many of the rights her party considers fundamental.

Ban on Monday welcomed Suu Kyi's decision to join parliament, suggesting during a trip to Naypyitaw, the capital, that it was in the country's long-term interest.

Speaking to parliament, Ban, reportedly the first foreign dignitary to address the fledgling institution, urged Western countries to further ease economic sanctions on Myanmar and expressed confidence the long-isolated country could catch up with its Asian neighbors.

"Today, I return to a new Myanmar, a Myanmar that is making history," Ban said. "More needs to be done. Today, I urge the international community to go further in easing or suspending trade restrictions and other sanctions."

Ban offered U.N. technical support for Myanmar's first census since 1983. He is slated to travel to Shan state, part of the drug-producing "golden triangle" region, to assess efforts to fight opium poppy farming.

After years of military rule and isolationist policies, Myanmar -– also known as Burma -- has undertaken a string of reforms under President Thein Sein. In recent months, the government has legalized trade unions, freed over 600 political prisoners, eased media censorship, initiated economic reforms and hammered out cease-fire agreements with ethnic minority rebel groups.

The trick for the United States and European allies is to calibrate their use of carrots and sticks to encourage reform without losing leverage, some observers said.

"As Burma moves toward a free-market economy, it too will come under market forces rather than political direction," Thayer said. "Burma will be more democratic and thus amenable to Western diplomatic influence."


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-- Gabrielle Paluch in Yangon and Mark Magnier in New Delhi

Photo: Members of Myanmar's parliament attend a session Monday addressed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Credit: Soe Than Win / AFP/Getty Images