British Foreign Secretary William Hague began a historic visit to Burma today and met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, according to the Associated Press. Suu Kyi also announced that her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been approved to run in the by-elections to be held on April 1.
Although the Nobel peace laureate did not confirm her own intentions to run for office, NLD spokesman Nyan Win told the AP in a separate interview that Suu Kyi does intend to run. The NLD boycotted elections in 2010 due to restrictions that would have prevented Suu Kyi from taking part. This election will mark the NLD’s first participation in Burma’s politics after nearly two decades.
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is believed to have anywhere from 600 to 1,000 political prisoners including dissidents and monks who participated in the 2007 protests, according to the BBC. The government, however, claims that they are all criminals.
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The nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein that came to power in March 2011, has been making cautious reforms and concessions including the release of political prisoners on Burma’s independence day, Jan. 4, as reported by CNN. Referring to the president, who was a top general before standing for elections in March 2011 as a civilian, Suu Kyi said, "The most important thing about the president is that he is an honest man... He is a man capable of taking risks if he thinks they are worthwhile."
The military is guaranteed 110 seats in the 440-seat lower house, and 56 seats in the 224-seat upper house, and the pro-military party now occupies 80 percent of the remaining 498 elected seats, so the 48 seats up for grabs, even if the NLD wins them all, will not change the balance of power.
Within the last month, senior Western officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have visited Burma and met with Suu Kyi. On Secretary Clinton’s visit, she pledged an initial $1.2 million in aid, though The Atlantic said, “Suu Kyi now ‘runs the risk of being absorbed by the system,’ Clinton replied that ‘from her perspective, it's important to validate the political process.’”
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Britain has pledged $289 million towards health and education in Burma, but the funds are channeled through nongovernmental groups in the country, according to the AP. On his visit, Hague stated, “We hope to see the release of all remaining political prisoners, free and fair by-elections, humanitarian access to people in conflict areas and credible steps towards national reconciliation.”
Nay Zin Latt, a political adviser to President Thein Sein, told the Guardian, “They [the NLD] can be the ruling party one day.”