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By-elections a test for Burma reform
Kate Arnott reports on a year of political change in Burma.

Burma has seen some astonishing change in the last year since Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

Now she's running for parliament, hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, cease-fire deals are being negotiated with ethnic rebels, and media freedom is on the rise.

But the conduct of elections in six weeks time will be a key test of the regime's credibility.

Kate Arnott reports.
(People cheering as Aung San Suu Kyi move through the street in a car)

KATE ARNOTT, REPORTER: It is a sight few people thought was possible in Burma just a year ago; pro democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the campaign trail running for a seat in parliament.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI, BURMESE PRO-DEMOCRACY LEADER (Translation): There is a lot to be done to build a country that we all want and to get the system of governance that benefits the people, we have to prevail. If we prevail and unite, we can overcome any difficulty.

(Footage of rally)

KATE ARNOTT: It is a sign of how quickly Burma is changing, after half a century of military domination. Aung San Suu Kyi was only released from house arrest at the end of 2010. Now she can travel around country and hold political rallies.

(Footage of rally)

TREVOR WILSON, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: It seems as if she's been able to move around very freely, more so than ever before. That she has been able to speak freely and what she has been saying has been recorded and reported.

KATE ARNOTT: She has, though, faced resistance in some parts, but on the whole there's much more freedom for most than there used to be.

(Footage of Aung San Suu Kyi political rally)

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR SEAN TURNELL, MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY: Nearly a year ago there was still a lot of tension. People who you may have wanted to talk et cetera were reluctant to talk. Would you have to sort of meet them in a location that didn't draw attention and so on. Now more or less people are willing to talk and happy to meet up and so on.

KATE ARNOTT: Burma analyst, Sean Turnell, has been to the South East Asian nation four times. Most recently at the start of February for one of the first major business and academic conferences since the country opened its borders.

SEAN TURNELL: The people there were extraordinarily open. It is really quite interesting. Many Burmese officials are very open in expressing frustration at the moment; optimism, certainly at the top level reforms, but frustration that the reforms are not being implemented, that they are being stymied within the bureaucracy.

KATE ARNOTT: Associate professor Turnell says there's little experience in Burma about running a modern democracy. As well, there's still a military mindset in which people await orders from the top before anything gets done.

U SOE THEIN, BURMESE INDUSTRY MINISTER: A lot of things we have done but many more to do, many more to do in the near future. So the democratic process is not finished yet. We have a lot of things to reform and to change.

KATE ARNOTT: It's relatively early days, but the April by elections will be a key test of the Burmese government's commitment to reform.

Western governments have made it clear that free and fair elections are an important condition for lifting economic sanctions against Burma.

TREVOR WILSON: And it seems that at the moment there isn't any intention to have outside election observers come for these by elections.

KATE ARNOTT: The United Nations is pushing strongly for monitors to be allowed in. Considering the 2010 the election was marred by widespread allegations of cheating.

There'll be by-elections in 48 seats, left vacant by MPs that have been elevated to ministerial and other executive positions.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League For Democracy, or NLD, is standing a candidate in all of them.

SEAN TURNELL: I think if it is a free and fair election, the NLD will be incredibly successful. And Likewise, don't think there's any doubt at all that Suu Kyi will win her seat.

KATE ARNOTT: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League For Democracy will have to wait until the next general election in 2015 for the chance of major political change. That's because, while 48 seats are up for grabs in these by elections, the Burmese parliament is made up of 664 seats.

TREVOR WILSON: The elections won't result in any changes in the overall make up of the Parliament which is still going to be overwhelmingly dominated by the pro government party, which was set up by the military.

KATE ARNOTT: But there are rumours swirling around that Aung San Suu Kyi may in fact join the government before the general election. It's speculation she hasn't ruled out and she has a strengthening relationship with the president Thien Sein.

SEAN TURNELL: I think she would be seeking assurances that if she did enter the government, that her voice would be heard and that she would have some degree of policy making power.

KATE ARNOTT: Aung San Suu Kyi would also step up her push for the release of all political prisoners and peace with ethnic rebel groups.

If that can be achieved, she holds out great hope for the future of her country.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We are not yet at the point of the great transformation, but we have a rare and extremely precious opportunity to reach such a point.
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