Burma's NLD in parliament 'boycott' over oath

The BBC's Rachel Harvey says Burma's president has given no indication that he will try to persuade Aung San Suu Kyi back

Burma's parliament has convened amid a boycott by the party of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi because of a row over the oath of office for MPs.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) want to swear to "respect", rather than "safeguard" the constitution, which they say is undemocratic.

The 1 April by-elections saw Ms Suu Kyi and 42 NLD members elected as MPs.

Meanwhile, the European Union has agreed to suspend sanctions against Burma for a year, diplomats say.

Military dominance

The constitution was drawn up by Burma's former military junta. It reserves 25% of all seats in parliament for the military.

"Only after the wording in the oath has been changed will we be able to attend the parliament," Ohn Kyaing, NLD spokesperson and newly-elected MP, told BBC Burmese.

The upper house of parliament convened in the morning and the lower house in the afternoon.

The NLD says it is confident the dispute over the parliamentary oath can be settled, says the BBC's Rachel Harvey in Bangkok. But no-one appears to be quite sure how or when.

Burma sanctions

In place:

  • US: Arms embargo, bans on investment and financial services, as well as a ban on most Burmese imports
  • EU: Ban on arms exports to, and investment in, Burma. Visa restrictions and asset freezes targeting key officials, ban on exports of gems, timber and metals
  • Canada: Asset freezes and ban on all imports and exports as well as financial services
  • Australia: Visa restrictions and ban on arms exports

Steps to ease sanctions:

  • US: To start 'targeted' lifting of investment and financial services bans. Will relax visa ban to help officials travel to US. Will maintain sanctions on people and institutions that oppose reform. Waived ban on technical assistance in February
  • EU: In January suspended visa ban on certain ministers and officials. In April, agreed to suspend sanctions for a year, but kept arms embargo

The dispute has come to a head as foreign ministers of EU nations met in Luxembourg.

At the meeting, the EU agreed to suspend sanctions against Burma for a year - with the exception of the arms embargo, diplomats said.

The decision, which was expected, rewards the country's recent reforms. It will go into effect later this week.

The US and Australia have already eased some sanctions on Burma.

"Lifting the sanctions will enable the international organisations, such as us, to get re-engaged," Asian Development Bank managing director Rajat Nag said.

"The challenges are huge and have to be addressed on a very broad front. But it has to start with engagement of the international community."

Burma has embarked on political and economic reform since the transition to a civilian-led government after polls in November 2010 ended nearly 50 years of direct military rule.

The constitution was introduced by the military administration in 2008 as part of that transition. It allocates 25% of seats in both houses of parliament and the state assemblies to the army.

The army and its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) still hold about 80% of seats in parliament, despite the NLD's recent landslide win in the 1 April by-election. The NLD boycotted the November 2010 polls because of election laws it said was unfair.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi wants, ultimately, to change the constitution because it enshrines the role of the armed forces in politics, says our correspondent.

But changing the oath may require parliamentary approval which would in turn mean securing the support of the military whose power the NLD wishes to curtail.

A similar change in the wording had to be made to the political registration law in order for the NLD to be able to take part in the latest by-elections. They were the first elections the NLD competed in since 1990.

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