Peter Popham: This may be more than just another false start for change

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Barack Obama got it just right: what we have seen in Burma are "flickers" of progress. In 1992, the newly-promoted senior general, Than Shwe, freed political prisoners, spoke of talks with the National League for Democracy (NLD), met its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and released her from detention.

In 2002, Ms Suu Kyi was again freed from detention amid talk of political accommodation. Both events were accompanied by much excitement but died away without changing the horrendous realities. Hillary Clinton's decision to visit Burma shows that this time the US believes the situation is different. President Thein Sein is a retired general, but the initiatives he has taken in recent months show a consistency of effort that is new.

He has legalised trade unions, told parliament to revise bad laws and frozen work on an unpopular dam across the Irrawaddy river. He has also changed the law on party registration: the existing law barred parties with members in detention, so to compete in last year's election, the NLD would have had to expel Ms Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. It is now expected that she will stand in a Rangoon by-election as early as next month.

When she wins, she will have regained the popular mandate her party enjoyed in 1990 when it won a general election but was denied power. Now she will have a legitimate position.

While some NLD members say it is too early to make peace with a regime holding political prisoners, Ms Suu Kyi's reasoning is persuasive. Since its de-registration last year, the NLD has been unable to prove its legitimacy through the ballot box. In parliament, it will be less vulnerable and Ms Suu Kyi will become in name what she has already long been in fact: leader of the opposition.

Peter Popham is the author of 'The Lady And The Peacock: The Life Of Aung San Suu Kyi'