NAYPYIDAW — Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition took its first step towards a return to mainstream Myanmar politics Friday, days before a historic visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) applied to officially re-register as a political party -- after boycotting last year's much-criticised parliamentary election -- amid signs of reform in a country long dominated by the military.
Clinton will travel to Myanmar on Wednesday to make the first visit by a US secretary of state in 50 years to try to boost what President Barack Obama has called "flickers" of progress.
Myanmar, ruled for decades by a repressive junta and isolated on the world stage, has seen promising changes since the November 2010 vote brought to power a nominally civilian government, albeit one with close links to the military.
Ex-general Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Myanmar's parliament and considered one of the most powerful men in the current regime, said Friday Myanmar wanted a "regular relationship" with Washington.
The new administration has surprised many observers with a series of reformist moves, including holding talks with Suu Kyi, passing a law giving workers the right to strike and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
Jim Della-Giacoma, South East Asia Project Director at the International Crisis Group, said the NLD's return to the fray marked the beginning of a new era in Myanmar politics.
"This is a significant landmark because it shows that the NLD is able to participate in the political process," he told AFP.
"The NLD obviously has a particular and special place, historically in terms of the opposition and in particular in relation to the international community."
The NLD boycotted last year's election -- Myanmar's first in 20 years -- mainly because of rules that would have forced it to expel imprisoned members. Suu Kyi was under house arrest at the time.
Last week the NLD said it would seek to sign up again as an official political party and contest upcoming by-elections, where 48 seats will be up for grabs.
The 66-year-old Suu Kyi is likely to stand in the polls, according to NLD officials, but she has yet to confirm this and no date has been set for a vote.
Myanmar President Thein Sein -- a former general -- told a small group of Myanmar journalists in Indonesia on Saturday that he was happy about the NLD's plans to re-enter mainstream politics and would welcome Suu Kyi to parliament.
The country's electoral commission in Naypyidaw is expected to take at least a week to approve the NLD application, after which the party will return with two of its leaders to complete the process.
"We are very glad because this is the first step to re-registration. For the next step, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi needs to come to the electoral commission office herself," NLD spokesman Nyan Win, who led the delegation, told AFP. Daw is a term of respect.
Friday's application was a low-key affair, with only six NLD representatives in attendance. Access to the remote capital is strictly controlled and no party supporters were present.
Obama announced Clinton's trip last Friday -- the same day the NLD pledged to return to the political arena -- after speaking to Suu Kyi personally for the first time.
The president said Suu Kyi had confirmed she supported US efforts to promote democratic reforms in Myanmar.
In another diplomatic coup last week, Myanmar also won approval from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to chair the 10-nation bloc in 2014.
The NLD won a landslide victory in polls in 1990 but the then-ruling junta never allowed the party to take power. Suu Kyi, although a figurehead for the campaign, was under house arrest at the time.
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