YANGON: Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi launched her historic bid for a seat in parliament on January 18 in the latest sign of change in the country after the end of decades of outright military rule.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner is standing in April 1 by-elections seen as a major test of the regime’s reform credentials following a surprising series of conciliatory gestures by the new nominally civilian government.
The pro-democracy leader submitted her registration to stand in a rural constituency in Kawhmu near Rangoon, an area devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, to the delight of crowds of supporters waiting outside.
“Aung San Suu Kyi was the first member of the NLD to register. She’s going to run for the lower house,” said Win Htein, a senior party official.
The 66-year-old’s National League for Democracy party has already been given approval to return to the official political arena, against a backdrop of budding reforms including dialogue between the regime and the opposition.
The NLD was stripped of its status as a legal political party in 2010 because it boycotted a controversial national election, saying the rules were unfair.
Ms Suu Kyi was released from years of house arrest shortly after the vote, which was marred by complaints of cheating and easily won by the military’s allies.
A quarter of parliament’s seats are now taken up by unelected military officials while the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is packed with former military men, holds about 80 per cent of the remainder.
Since coming to power in March, the new military-backed government dominated by former generals has made a series of reformist moves in an apparent attempt to reach out to political opponents and the West.
These included releasing hundreds of political prisoners, suspending construction of an unpopular mega-dam and pursuing peace deals with armed ethnic minority rebels.
The NLD won an election in 1990 by a landslide, while Ms Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, but the ruling generals never allowed the party to take power.
A total of 48 seats are up for grabs in the April vote – not enough to threaten the resounding majority held by the ruling party. But the participation of Ms Suu Kyi would give a boost to the legislature’s credibility.
A top regime figure said that Burma has “no other way” but to embrace democracy, and promised that the April poll would be democratic.
“I guarantee the elections will be free and fair,” said lower house speaker Shwe Mann.
Ms Suu Kyi hinted at the weekend that she could take a position in the government but said it “depends on the circumstances”.
The April by-elections are to fill places vacated by those elected in the 2010 polls who have since become ministers and deputy ministers in the government.
Burma’s government released about 300 political prisoners in its latest amnesty, prompting the US to move to restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than two decades.
The top Republican in the US Senate said the regime was serious about change and voiced openness for an eventual lifting of the sanctions which he has long championed if Ms Suu Kyi believed it was the right course.
“We are open to it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said after talks with key regime figures in the capital Naypyidaw, describing the change of direction in Burma as “quite remarkable”. -AFP