BANGKOK // Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi plans to run for parliament in the forthcoming by-elections and her profile is likely to boost the country's fragile reform process, according to analysts and diplomats.
"This is an extremely important move," Sean Turnell, a Myanmar specialist at Macquarie University in the Australia who recently visited Myanmar, said in an interview yesterday. "Aung San Suu Kyi is uniquely placed to drive reform forward and bring on board a substantial constituency to help maintain that momentum."
Ms Suu Kyi, the popular leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), will contest a parliamentary seat in Kawhmu - a suburb of Yangon, the country's largest city and the Nobel Peace laureate's hometown - in the elections scheduled for April, according to a party spokesman, Nyan Win.
The NLD is preparing to contest 48 seats, most of which were vacated by MPs who became cabinet ministers in the country's quasi-civilian government in a November 2010 election - Myanmar's first in 20 years.
"We hope the government of Thein Sein keeps its word and allows a free and fair election," Mr Nyan Win told The National in an interview yesterday.
The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections in opposition to the new constitution, endorsed in a sham referendum condemned by pro-democracy activists and the international community. The constitution guarantees the military 110 seats in the 440-seat lower house and 56 seats in the 224-seat upper house. The main pro-military party, led by the country's president and former military leader Thein Sein, holds 80 per cent of the remaining 498 elected seats.
Myanmar has been ruled by the military for almost 60 years. It ignored the results of the elections in May 1990, which the NLD won convincingly. Aung San Suu Kyi did not contest those polls as the military put her under arrest in mid-1989. Since then she has been in detention on three different occasions, spending more than fourteen of the last 23 years under house arrest. She was released in November 2010 - a week after the elections.
"Even if she is the leader of a minority party in parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi will be a potent symbol for national reconciliation and democratic change," said Nyo Myint - a pro-democracy activist based in Thailand who is close to Ms Suu Kyi. "The lady is showing her trust in the government," he said.
Since Mr Thein Sein became president nearly a year ago there have been signs that the country's new quasi-civilian government is trying to pursue a genuine transition to democracy.
These include the releasing of a substantial number of political prisoners, legalising labour unions and increasing press freedom - to the point where the Kyaw Yin Hlaing. a Myanmar specialist at Hong Kong University, believes it is less regulated than the media in either Hong Kong or Singapore.
Most important, Mr Thein Sein, a civilian who had a four-decade military career, met with Ms Suu Kyi in the presidential palace in the capital, Naypyidaw, last July.
"There is enough to make us cautiously optimistic, with the stress on optimistic," Steve Marshall, the head of the International Labour Organisation in Yangoon, said in an interview.
"I think it would be fair to say that winds of change are clearly blowing through Burma [Myanmar's former name]," said Kurt Campbell, the US State Department official in charge of the Asia in Bangkok, in an interview late last year. "The extent of it is still unclear, but everyone who's gone there recognises that there are changes."
Hillary Clinton - the US secretary for state - went there last month to meet Ms Suu Kyi and see for herself. She told Myanmar leaders, including Mr Thein Sein, that greater reforms were needed.
By running for parliament, Ms Suu Kyi is personally endorsing the president, according to Mr Nyo Myint. "She believes in the president, Thein Sein's sincerity and see contesting the parliament seat is a significant step towards democratization," he said.
"The future is bright,' a senior member of the NLD and confidante of Ms Suu Kyi said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If everything goes according to the game plan, Aung San Suu Kyi will be opposition leader [in parliament] in the near future and president after the next elections."