Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for laws protecting the rights of ethnic minorities during her first parliamentary debate in Burma’s Lower House on Wednesday.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) chairman supported a proposal of Ti Khun Myat, the MP representing Shan State’s Kut Khai Constituency for the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), to enact laws to protect minority groups.
Protecting the rights of ethnic minorities is a complex issue and more than simply preserving their culture and language, said the Nobel Laureate.
“It also cannot be detached from the Panglong spirit which is based on equality and mutual respect,” said Suu Kyi. “Keeping this in mind, we, all of us parliamentarians, must work together to amend the laws as necessary to be able to protect ethnic rights as well as to develop a truly democratic nation.”
The proposal to protect the rights of minorities applied mainly to ethnic languages, literature and culture, and some MPs criticized the current wording for lacking provisions for equality, autonomy and human rights.
Ba Shein, a Lower House MP for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said he supports the proposal but it also needs to include guarantees of ethnic equality.
“There needs to be many amendments to make in order to have equality for the ethnics as well as to build the federal union which the ethnics consistently want to establish,” he said.
Nine MPs including Suu Kyi discussed the proposed legislation during Wednesday’s session of the People’s Parliament after it was first introduced as a topic on Tuesday.
Two other NLD members—Min Thu from Naypyidaw’s Ottarathiri Constituency and Ohn Kyaing from Mandalay’s Maha-Aung-Myay Constituency—joined Suu Kyi in the debate.
The democracy icon also raised the issue of the term “ethnics” as the controversial 2008 Constitution does not contain a specific definition. According to the 1982 citizenship law, an ethnic group must have been living permanently on Burmese soil since before 1823 to be eligible for citizenship.
Suu Kyi also highlighted poverty in ethnic states as well as their underdeveloped condition due to a continuous cycle of civil wars. Burma’s highest poverty rate is in Chin State at 73.3 percent with 43.5 percent in Arakan State and 37.1 percent in Shan State, she said, noting that the national average was 25.6 percent.
Her speech was broadcasted live on Burma’s SkyNet channel which offers live coverage of parliamentary debates.