Suu Kyi in Myanmar parliament as crucial debates await

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar Mon Jul 9, 2012 7:34am EDT

1 of 6. Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends a parliamentary meeting at the Lower House of Parliament in Naypyitaw July 9, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

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NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi attended the new session of Myanmar's parliament on Monday, a scrum of media recording the start of her first real step into the country's novel lawmaking process after formally taking the oath of office in May.

Expectations lie heavily on the Nobel laureate's shoulders now she has taken her party's two-decade fight for democracy into parliament, agreeing to work with the reformist remnants of the former junta now running the country as civilians.

Entering the grandiose parliament complex in the capital, Naypyitaw, Suu Kyi was typically understated about the role she could play in upcoming debates, which will tackle laws on foreign investment, the media and special economic zones.

"Things will go according to the agenda," she told reporters. "I've already said that I would try my best."

Among the issues discussed on Monday were education, disabilities, and the submission of a draft law on electric power, a critical issue in a country where 75 percent of people have no regular access to electricity.

The session started last week but Suu Kyi delayed her arrival, apparently exhausted after a long tour of Europe, her first visit there since she returned to Myanmar in 1988.

The experience seemed unfamiliar to Suu Kyi, who listened attentively to the discussions, and on occasions appeared to be asking ruling United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmakers either side of her to explain the proceedings.

Lawmakers are expected to vote this week on a new vice-president after the resignation of Tin Aung Myint Oo, once a hardline junta member.

LEGITIMACY BOOST

The participation of Suu Kyi, 67, could give more legitimacy to a parliament that was greeted skeptically when it convened in January 2011 after a general election two months earlier widely seen as rigged in favor of a military-backed USDP.

The assembly selected Thein Sein to be president and the junta stepped aside in March 2011. To widespread surprise, Thein Sein quickly launched political and economic reforms.

Although proceedings have been more open than expected, the USDP's dominance of the upper and lower houses, plus the 25 percent quota of seats taken by the armed forces, have raised doubts about the extent to which the quasi-civilian government will be held to account.

Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party had long resisted moves by the military to bring them into the political fold but they changed direction last November after Thein Sein persuaded Suu Kyi to participate. She has expressed cautious optimism about her involvement.

She has pledged to pursue amendments to the constitution to reduce the military's political role, but has said she wants to work closely with parliament's armed forces delegates, with whom she was seen chatting with during tea breaks on Monday.

She was also seen talking with influential house speaker and third-in-command of the former junta, Shwe Mann, a popular figure in the eyes of the international community, who is seen as a key driver of the reforms.

There is speculation in Myanmar that the cordial relationship between the two, which diplomats see as crucial to maintaining the pace of reform, has become strained as a result of Suu Kyi's comments while on trips to Thailand and Europe.

She warned of "reckless optimism" over the reforms, criticized the judiciary and raised doubts about the military's commitment to the transition of power.

She has also refused to heed demands by the authorities for her party to call the country Myanmar, sticking to Burma, its former name.

The parliament could be asked to endorse a possible reshuffle by Thein Sein. Sources with knowledge of the issue say it could streamline ministries, give high-profile roles to members of the pro-reform camp and sideline some conservatives.

Suu Kyi appeared cheerful as she left the chamber after a long session. Asked if she enjoyed her first day, she smiled and said: "That's work".

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)

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