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Myanmar opposition take historic step into parliament

Myanmar members of parliament attend the opening of the lower house parliament session in Naypyidaw on July 4, 2012. (AFP PHOTO / Soe Than WIN)

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: Myanmar's opposition lawmakers, minus their absent leader Aung San Suu Kyi, took their seats in the nation's fledgling parliament Wednesday, in a session set to be dominated by recent deadly communal unrest.

After years muffled by the repressive former junta, National League for Democracy (NLD) members arrived for the new parliament session, with violence in western Rakhine state, economic reform and foreign investment leading the agenda.

Democracy champion Suu Kyi, one of the NLD's 37 lower house members of parliament, will miss the opening days as she recovers from her gruelling European tour and visits her constituency.

But she is due to join proceedings in the purpose-built capital on Monday.

Three lawmakers from her party who had not officially been sworn in took a parliamentary oath Wednesday, as the lower house speaker welcomed new members to the chamber, an AFP reporter said.

The session recasts the NLD from the role of dissidents to the heart of Myanmar's political decision making, offering an opportunity to shape policy for the first time.

"I hope the capacity of parliament will be improved and its dignity and character raised because of the cooperation of the new representatives," speaker and former general Shwe Mann said.

Most pressingly for parliament, still led by the military and its political allies, is the deadly communal violence in June between ethnic Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya which left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless.

A state of emergency is still in place after the outbreak of violence, which prompted reformist President Thein Sein to warn it could damage the country's emergence from decades of military rule.

State mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar on Wednesday quoted the president again urging an end to "ethnic conflicts" saying "unending racial rift or armed ethnic fights hinder economic development."

Some hundred kilometers (60 miles) north, fighting also continues between government troops and ethnic rebels in Kachin state, while fragile ceasefires have been agreed with several other guerilla groups.

"Scattering armed ethnic groups undermine the rule of law. The foundation for building the nation is (an) end of ethnic armed groups and conflicts," the president was quoted as saying.

Also up for discussion will be the crafting of a new foreign investment law to govern the expected rush of overseas cash into the once secretive state and other measures to bolster Myanmar's long-neglected economy.

Suu Kyi on Tuesday pledged the NLD will join "the legislative concert" and push for greater "transparency" once inside parliament.

The 67-year-old, who returned on Saturday from a triumphant five-nation European tour, was swept into parliament in landmark April by-elections that saw an NLD landslide.

She will travel to the capital Naypyidaw over the weekend, after visiting her constituency following more than a month's absence.

"We will focus on two things... national level government reforms and the protection of rights of our constituents and their development," said NLD MP Win Htein, promising to consult the party's Nobel-winning leader as events unfold.

The session resumes a day after around 20 political prisoners were included in a jail amnesty, in the latest sign of government reforms which have edged Myanmar out of the shadow of repressive army rule.

 

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