In rapid policy changes on Burma Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he will send his top diplomat on a landmark visit to the once-pariah country while Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi announced her party's return to national politics.
Hillary Clinton will make her visit on Dec. 1-2, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in half a century, Obama said in a statement after speaking directly to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi by telephone for the first time.
"[A]fter years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks," Obama said as he reviewed the reform measures taken by President Thein Sein and the Burmese parliament, which was elected in landmark elections in November after decades of brutal military rule.
Obama said they were "the most important steps toward reform in Burma that we've seen in years," citing the current dialogue between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi, the release of some political prisoners, the lifting of media restrictions, and new laws to open the political environment.
But "far more" needs to be done, said Obama, who is attending an East Asia summit in Indonesia, referring to Burma’s still-closed political system, its treatment of minorities and holding of political prisoners, and its relationship with nuclear renegade North Korea.
"But we want to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress, and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America," he said.
Obama also sought Aung San Suu Kyi's "ideas and thoughts about the best approach" to inducing reforms in Burma, which is also called Myanmar.
"She encouraged the president to make clear to Burma's leaders that the U.S. will be willing to work with them if they are in fact demonstrating that they are willing to work with the world and her," one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In another sign of political rapprochement, Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), agreed to re-register itself to contest a series of by-elections for vacant parliamentary seats.
NLD's 106-member Central Executive Committee voted unanimously to re-register the party, which was "dissolved" by the then military junta for boycotting last year's general elections.
The NLD's move came after the Burmese parliament amended electoral laws paving the way for its official return to politics.
"We have to accept the majority's decision according to democracy principles," Aung San Suu Kyi told her party members.
"Not merely accepting, but we have to do so with our heart and soul, if we really accept it," she said in an indication that there were reservations among some members despite the unanimous vote.
They had questioned the move because the government has not yet released all political prisoners or forged peace with ethnic armed groups.
"Before the decision, one can submit his opinion as he likes, and discuss openly whether or not one agrees with this," Aung San Suu Kyi said.
"But once the decision is made, one has to follow that decision genuinely, and I want you all to understand this is one of the responsibilities of democracy."
Thein Than Tun, a former political prisoner and member of the influential 88 Generation Students group, said that despite the NLD vote, the government should resolve key outstanding issues for genuine democracy.
“We respect their democratic decision to register the party. But two key issues for national reconciliation still have to be resolved: the release of all political prisoners and an end to hostilities in ethnic areas,” the Irrawaddy online journal quoted him as saying.
He was among more than 200 political detainees released in October as part of an government amnesty.
Ethnic parties cautious
NLD's allied ethnic parties such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), the Arakan League for Democracy, the Mon National Democratic Front (MNDF), and the Zomi National Congress, said that they will wait until ethnic leaders are released before registering.
Aung San Suu Kyi said she wanted her party to contest all the 48 seats up for grabs in the by-elections by the end of the year but did not indicate whether she herself would vie for membership in parliament.
The NLD won the 1990 general elections by a landslide, but the military junta at that time refused to cede power and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under years of house arrest. She was released only after the November elections.
The European Union was also encouraged by the NLD's decision to take part in elections, saying it is reviewing its policy towards Burma.
Both the United States and the EU maintain diplomatic and economic sanctions on the country.
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Burma to release more dissidents, but said it is already looking at whether reforms there could justify an easing of sanctions.
"We hope that these elections are conducted in a fair and transparent manner. This would be yet another step towards national [re]conciliation," spokesman Michael Mann said, according to Reuters news agency.
Thein Sein's government received a fillip this week after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to allow Burma to chair the grouping despite an outcry from rights groups who feel the move is premature and could remove incentives for more reforms.
Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to Burma's president, said Clinton's upcoming visit is "a very good sign."
"I think it is a significant turn in U.S. policy towards Myanmar ... people in Myanmar will welcome, cheer Hillary Clinton because for a time in history, they have never seen a secretary of state," he told Reuters.
Obama is not scheduled to have a bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein but will see him in Bali at the East Asia Summit.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English with additional reporting by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.