Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Myanmar's Suu Kyi registers for Parliament seat (AP)

THANLYIN, Myanmar ? Ecstatic cheers of "Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi!" echoed through the streets of this impoverished Yangon suburb Wednesday as Myanmar's most iconic figure registered her candidacy for a parliamentary by-election.

Throngs of flag-waving supporters crowded the local election office to shout support and catch a glimpse of the 66-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, who became Myanmar's most recognizable face during years of house arrest under authoritarian rule.

The scene would have been unthinkable while the country was still under military rule. Suu Kyi was despised by the junta because of her popularity and any public support for her was swiftly and firmly halted.

The freedom allowed to Suu Kyi's supporters is another sign that the country's newly elected but military-backed government is following through on promises for democratic reforms ? a key condition of the West before lifting sanctions.

Since taking office in March, authorities have released hundreds of prominent political prisoners, signed cease-fires with ethnic rebels, increased press freedoms and opened a dialogue with Suu Kyi herself.

Even if Suu Kyi's party wins all 48 seats to be contested April 1, it will have minimal power. The 440-seat lower house of Parliament is heavily weighted with military appointees and allies of the former junta.

But a victory would be historic. It would give the longtime political prisoner a voice in Parliament for the first time in her decades-long role as the country's opposition leader.

Suu Kyi registered to run for a seat representing Kawhmu, a poor district south of Yangon where villagers' livelihoods were devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Crowds greeted her at the local Election Commission office in Thanlyin, many wearing Suu Kyi T-shirts.

Suu Kyi paraphernalia has proliferated in recent months with vendors hawking Suu Kyi photographs, key chains and calendars, seen as another testament to the country's breakneck pace of change.

The Election Commission must still accept Suu Kyi's candidacy, a ruling expected to come next month. Her party has so far chosen 44 candidates to contest the 48 seats vacated by lawmakers who became Cabinet ministers.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in 1990 elections but was denied power by the military junta. Suu Kyi herself was under house arrest during those elections and barred from running.

In 2010, the military held another general election, but Suu Kyi's party said the rules were unfair and declined to participate.

Reforms since the election have prompted Suu Kyi to change their mind and drawn praise from the international community.

The United States announced recently it would upgrade diplomatic relations with the country and send an ambassador to Myanmar for the first time in two decades.

President Barack Obama praised the recent release of hundreds of political prisoners as "a substantial step forward for democratic reform."


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