- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

THANLYIN, Myanmar (AP) — Ecstatic cheers of “Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi!” echoed through the streets of this impoverished Yangon suburb Wednesday as she registered for elections, a sign of how vastly Myanmar has changed since the junta gave up power after decades of iron-fisted rule.

Throngs of flag-waving supporters crowded the local election office to shout support and glimpse the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who became Myanmar’s most recognizable face during years of house arrest under authoritarian rule.

The scene would have been unthinkable while the junta still ruled. It despised Mrs. Suu Kyi because of her popularity, and any public support for her was halted swiftly and firmly.

The freedom allowed to Mrs. Suu Kyi’s supporters is another sign that the country’s elected but military-backed government is keeping promises for democratic reforms — a key condition of the West before lifting sanctions.

Since taking office in March, the government has released hundreds of prominent political prisoners, signed cease-fires with ethnic rebels, increased press freedoms and opened a dialogue with Mrs. Suu Kyi herself.

Even if her political party wins all 48 seats to be contested in by-elections 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.

But a victory would be historic. It would give the longtime political prisoner a voice in Parliament for the first time after decades as the country’s opposition leader.

Mrs. 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. Many in the crowds that greeted her at the Election Commission office in Thanlyin wore Suu Kyi T-shirts.

Suu Kyi paraphernalia has proliferated in recent months with vendors hawking photographs, key chains and calendars with her image, seen as another testament to the country’s breakneck pace of change.

The Election Commission still must accept Suu Kyi’s candidacy, a ruling expected to come next month. Her party so far has chosen 44 candidates to contest the 48 seats vacated by lawmakers who became Cabinet ministers.

Mrs. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in 1990 elections but was denied power by the military junta. Myanmar’s next elections didn’t come for 20 years, but Mrs. Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and her party boycotted because of what they called unfair and undemocratic rules.

Reforms since that election in 2010 have drawn Mrs. Suu Kyi and her party back into mainstream politics and won international praise and measured diplomatic support.

The United States is upgrading diplomatic relations and sending an ambassador to Myanmar for the first time in two decades.

The severe international sanctions that restrict Myanmar’s trade and the travel and financial transactions of the former junta’s inner circle mostly remain, as countries monitor how the April vote is conducted and weigh other considerations.

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