Suu Kyi charts comeback
Published: 17/11/2011 at 09:29 PM
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Rangoon: Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party is expected to announce its return to the official political arena on Friday after years of marginalisation by ruling generals.

About 100 senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) are to gather in Rangoon to discuss re-registering as a political party, the latest in a string of developments since an election last November - Burma's first in 20 years.

Analysts say the NLD's return would add to the legitimacy of the army-backed government, which is seeking to end its global isolation by loosening political shackles - but also increase the relevancy of the popular but long-excluded Suu Kyi.

"With or without Suu Kyi, as we see, Burma is moving along. This is her chance to be part of that change," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, research fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

The NLD swept to election victory in 1990 but the junta stopped the party taking office, and it boycotted last year's vote mainly because of rules that would have forced it to expel imprisoned members. Suu Kyi was under house arrest at the time.

The Nobel peace prize winner, who has spent 15 of the last 22 years in detention, was released a few days after the widely discredited 2010 poll and now appears to be planning an entrance to the mainstream political process.

"The NLD is likely to register and also Daw Suu is likely to participate at the coming by-election," Nyan Win, a party spokesman told AFP at the weekend, using Daw as a term of respect.

It is not yet clear when a by-election will be held, but there are more than 40 seats available in parliament's two chambers.

At a news conference on Monday marking a year since her release from house arrest, the 66-year-old Suu Kyi said she was "encouraged" by developments in the last 12 months.

The new government, installed eight months ago, has surprised critics with a number of reformist moves.

It has held direct talks with Suu Kyi, in a level of dialogue that has astonished one Western diplomat, given that Burma's former leader Senior General Than Shwe refused to even say her name in public.

"She has been recognised officially as the opposition leader," since meeting with new President Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "She is the big player."

The president also endorsed a subtle change to Burma's law on political parties this month, removing the condition that all parties must agree to "preserve" the country's 2008 constitution, according to state media.

The wording has now been changed to "respect and obey", media said - a small alteration but one that would allow the NLD to criticise and suggest changes to the constitution.

As a reward for its conciliatory moves, Burma is set to win Southeast Asia's backing to chair the region's bloc in 2014, despite the United States warning it was too soon to reward the new government.

President Barack Obama on Thursday made a cautious approach to Burmese signs of change, saying his administration would continue with a mix of sanctions and engagement.

Despite a limited prisoner amnesty last month, Western countries remain concerned about the hundreds of dissidents who remain behind bars.

Suu Kyi has also reiterated calls for their release - "an issue of great importance to all of us who are working for democracy," she said on Monday.

The sentiment was echoed by five monks who held a rare two-day protest in the second-largest city Mandalay this week, also demanding freedom of speech for monks and an end to conflict between the army and ethnic minority rebels.

While many remain sceptical about Burmese progress, activists in the country are hopeful that the NLD's likely comeback - and its potential future presence in parliament - could speed up change in the underdeveloped nation.

"We are excited about the NLD's decision tomorrow. If the NLD or Daw Suu take part in the elections, we will vote for them," a resident of Mandalay told AFP, asking not to be named.