By Andrew R.C. Marshall
(Reuters) - A political stalemate preventing the long-awaited parliamentary debut of Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi coincides with an apparent attempt by the powerful military to bolster its influence in the legislature.
Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) colleagues swept 43 of 45 seats contested in April 1 by-elections but now she and other NLD MPs elect are refusing to swear a parliamentary oath to "safeguard" a 2008 constitution, which they say is undemocratic.
They want the word in the oath changed to "respect."
The stalemate has unsettled party faithful who are eager for the NLD to help tackle their country's myriad problems, while perplexing analysts who say the NLD's gambit risks being seen as pedantic, ill-timed, and needlessly confrontational.
"It's a very high-risk strategy for political gains that are not quite clear," says Richard Horsey, a former United Nations official in Myanmar. "It's wasting precious time that could be spent on actual policymaking."
The NLD is holding its ground in the evident hope that a deal can be brokered with the help of reformist President Thein Sein and the speakers of the upper and lower houses.
"Different views are the essence of democracy," says Myat Nyana Soe, a member of parliament who recently switched parties to join the NLD. "We hope the majority will respect the view of the minority."
The NLD's no-show coincides with an effort by the military to strengthen its position in parliament, where its officers are guaranteed a quarter of seats under the constitution.
Fifty-nine majors were replaced with senior officers ranked from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general, Myanmar's election commission announced on April 22.
The move anticipates the eventual arrival of the NLD's small but vocal contingent.
"It's quite clear that the replacement of these young majors with higher ranking officials is to make military representation stronger and make their voice heard louder inside the parliament," said a lower house member, who declined to be identified.
The oath stalemate will mystify many in Myanmar, an impoverished country of 60 million people where fretting about constitutional semantics comes a very distant second to daily concerns about lack of jobs, healthcare and educational opportunities.
But Suu Kyi's passion for changing the constitution, which also allows the president to hand power to the armed forces chief in an ill-defined emergency, should come as no surprise.
The drafting of the constitution was tightly controlled by the military, which ruled harshly for nearly 50 years following a 1962 coup, and guarantees it a leading role in politics.
Now, after the military officially stepped back in favor of a reformist, quasi-civilian government, a new confrontation could be looming.
While Suu Kyi has recently hinted at the need for the military to get out of politics, the armed forces commander has spoken of the need for the military to protect the constitution that gives it a "leadership role".
One of Suu Kyi's main promises during her election campaign was to amend the constitution, while NLD campaign manager Nyan Win told Reuters in March that charter change would be Suu Kyi's "very first priority" upon entering parliament.
"SHOULD BE IN PARLIAMENT"
The NLD convincingly won an election in 1990, but the military junta annulled the result and mercilessly persecuted Suu Kyi and her supporters. Since then, Suu Kyi's party has consistently refused to participate in junta-backed initiatives.
In 1995, NLD members walked out of a constitution-drafting assembly convened by the junta. They also boycotted 2010 elections that were widely criticized as rigged in favor of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which now dominates parliament.
In 1998, between spells under house arrest, she sat in a car for six days on a country road after police stopped her visiting party members. Diplomats said she used that stand-off to undermine the ruling junta's claim that she was free to move about the country.
What she hopes to prove from the standoff over the oath eludes even potential allies. "The oath is nothing," says Zung Hlei Thang, an MP with the ethnic Chin Progressive Party. "It doesn't create any hindrance for amending the constitution."
"The NLD should be in parliament, where they can raise any issue - corruption, rule of law and, of course, amending the constitution," said Kyaw Zwa Moe, managing editor of Irrawaddy Publishing Group, a news organization founded by Myanmar exiles in Thailand.
He suspected the decision was a last-minute one taken in the euphoric wake of the by-elections, in which the NLD trounced its arch-rival, the USDP.
MP Myat Nyana Soe said the decision was made by the party's Central Executive Committee. Four of its seven members are MPs elect, including Suu Kyi.
The stalemate could also be testing voters' faith in Suu Kyi, who is widely revered in Myanmar. "People are quite worried that their vote will be useless," says Nyo Ohn Myint, an exiled NLD leader.
Aye Maung, of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, played down the standoff. He noted that a foreign investment law was the only major legislation to be decided before parliament's current session expires at the end of April, and that all sides had "plenty of time" to work out a compromise.
But USDP secretary general Htay Oo told Reuters on Monday his party would not introduce any proposal to change the oath. "The wording would have no impact on the development of the country," he said.
While the NLD's seats lie empty, the military's decision to fill its quota with higher-ranking delegates was an "obvious recognition" of parliament's growing importance, said Horsey.
The soldier-delegates were now "thinking for themselves and are allowed to vote independently," he said. "They're studying the issues. In that case, is it really captains and majors you want?"
NLD member Nyo Ohn Myint saw the hand of retired dictator Senior General Than Shwe in the newly appointed military delegates.
"They are all hardliners," he said. "General Than Shwe has woken up and might take the opportunity to derail the democratic process."
(Additional reporting by Stuart Grudgings and Thu Rein Hlaing in Naypyitaw; Editing by Robert Birsel)