Ecstatic cheers of “Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi!” echoed through the streets of Thanlyin, an impoverished Yangon suburb, yesterday 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. Aung San Suu Kyi was despised by the junta because of her popularity and any public support for her was swiftly and firmly halted.
“Aung San Suu Kyi was the first member of the NLD [National League for Democracy] to register. She’s going to run for the lower house,” NLD official Win Htein said.
The 66-year-old’s NLD 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 after it chose to boycott a controversial national election held in November of that year, saying the rules were unfair.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to contest the April polls is the latest vote of confidence for reforms by the country’s new, nominally civilian government. Since taking office in March, authorities have released hundreds of prominent political prisoners, signed cease-fires with ethnic rebels, increased press freedoms and opened dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi herself.
Even if Aung San 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.
However, 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.
Aung San 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 Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirts.
Aung San Suu Kyi paraphernalia has proliferated in recent months, with vendors hawking Aung San 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 Aung San 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.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party won a landslide victory in 1990 elections, but was denied power by the military junta. Aung San Suu Kyi herself was under house arrest during those elections and barred from running. Reforms since the 2010 election have prompted Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to change their mind and drawn praise from the international community.
The US announced recently it would upgrade diplomatic relations with the country and send an ambassador to Myanmar for the first time in two decades.
US President Barack Obama praised the recent release of hundreds of political prisoners as “a substantial step forward for democratic reform.”