YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's government on Thursday approved the National League for Democracy to run in upcoming by-elections that will return Aung San Suu Kyi's party to mainstream politics after two decades, the opposition leader said.
Allowing Suu Kyi's party back into the political fold will likely give the government greater legitimacy at home and abroad. Western governments have cautiously supported the reforms Myanmar's new government has made since general elections in late 2010, while keeping in place economic sanctions and continuing to urge further reforms.
"We have now been officially registered," Suu Kyi told The Associated Press in an interview in her residence.
She declined to confirm if she will stand in the election and planned an announcement between Jan. 16 and 31. "This is the time when we have to register our candidates."
Party spokesman Nyan Win, however, said in a separate interview Thursday that Suu Kyi intends to run.
In 1990 elections, the then-ruling junta refused to accept a NLD victory, and the party boycotted the 2010 polls because of restrictions that among other things would have prevented Suu Kyi from running. The nominally civilian government in office since March has eased restrictions on politics and other matters, leading to the re-registration of the NLD as a political party.
Most of the 48 Parliament seats being contested in the April 1 by-election were vacated by MPs who became Cabinet ministers after the first parliamentary session last January.
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.
Suu Kyi said the NLD is "not looking just to accomplish things within the Parliament."
She said their work "within the Parliament will just be an addition to the political work that we have been doing for the last 23 years."
Nyan Win said the NLD will start accepting new members on Monday. Candidate lists for the by-election must be submitted by Jan. 31.
As Myanmar's nominally civilian government has initiated reforms, Western officials have visited the country to encourage that path.
Britain's foreign secretary is the latest, urging Myanmar to push its democratic reforms and release all political prisoners as he began a historic trip Thursday. William Hague is the first British foreign secretary to visit Myanmar since 1955.
Myanmar President Thein Sein greeted Hague in the capital, Naypyitaw, but neither talked to reporters. Hague is scheduled to meet Suu Kyi later in Yangon.
Britain believes Myanmar holds between 591 and 1,700 political prisoners, though poor record-keeping and disputes over the status of prisoners makes accuracy difficult.
"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," Hague said.
Though Hague's two-day visit signals a shift in relations, Britain won't promise any immediate change in European Union sanctions on arms sales, asset freezes and travel bans — or change a policy that discourages U.K. businesses from trade with Myanmar.
Britain recently pledged 185 million pounds ($289 million) over three years to fund health and education projects — becoming Myanmar's largest bilateral aid donor — but the U.K. channels funds only through nongovernmental groups.
Hague will lay out a series of demands for Myanmar's leadership to meet before Britain considers offering funds direct to the government, or before the EU can lift any sanctions.
"Further steps are needed that will have a lasting impact on human rights and political freedom," Hague said.