As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down for historic talks with Burma’s leaders, pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi stole the limelight, announcing she will run in planned parliamentary elections once her National League for Democracy (NLD) re-registers as a political party.
Her decision, announced during a teleconference with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, wasn’t totally unexpected, and will provide foreign policy watchers and long suffering Burmese people with a solid marker as to whether or not their government is serious about reform.
“I will certainly run for elections when they take place,” she said. “We are waiting to hear whether our party’s application for registration has been accepted. And once that is accepted we can start making plans to contest the by-elections.”
A re-emergence of Suu Kyi onto her country’s political landscape would go a long way in convincing skeptics that President Thein Sein is serious about political reform. Hardliners within the military have never approved of “The Lady,” and to this day would like to see the back of her.
The NLD won landslide elections in 1990, but the military refused to allow the party to take office and it was forced to boycott last year’s troubled election, regarded by many as a sham, because electoral laws would have required it to expel imprisoned members of the party in order to contest the poll.
Suu Kyi was under house arrest during both elections. There are 48 parliamentary seats currently available, although no dates have been set for the by-elections.
“We hope that by having some of our people in Parliament we will be able to do twice the work that we have been doing,” she said.
Since the November poll, Thein Sein has legalized trade unions and eased censorship laws, revised laws on political parties, freed 300 political prisoners, and sought a conciliatory line with Suu Kyi.
He also stunned observers by defying China, one of Burma’s few allies, which was building a mega-dam inside the country. Thein Sein suspended construction amid heated opposition from locals.
The reforms have won wary approval, and prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to dispatch Clinton, the first US Secretary of State to visit Burma in 50 years. She has remained tightlipped about what shape the talks might take.
A safe assumption will be the question of the release of more than 1,600 political prisoners who remain behind bars, and who some think will be used by the Burmese as a bargaining chip if reforms continue to gather pace, as well as the country’s long-running ethnic civil wars.
Clinton is walking a political tightrope. A resolution to the tensions between Burma the West in particular was never going to be easy, but Suu Kyi’s announcement was brilliant in its timing and her return to the political stage will be seen as an important benchmark going forward.