YANGON (Reuters) - Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi addressed Myanmar's parliament for the first time on Wednesday to support calls by a ruling party lawmaker for new laws to protect the country's many ethnic minority groups.
While her address might be routine for many parliaments around the world, it symbolised the huge changes that have unfolded in Myanmar since the military ceded power to a quasi-civilian government in March last year.
After two decades of animosity between the junta and Suu Kyi, who spent much of it under house arrest, her once-outlawed National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 of 44 seats in April by-elections, giving greater legitimacy to a political system that was widely dismissed at the outset as a charade.
Speaking from the floor of the lower house in the remote capital, Naypyitaw, Suu Kyi said Myanmar's ethnic minorities had suffered decades of civil war and underdevelopment and that laws should be made to ensure their rights were guaranteed.
Suu Kyi, who was sworn in at the end of the last session on May 1, said such legislation should be "based on equality, mutual respect and confidence for the emergence of a genuine democratic union".
Also significant was her backing for a motion tabled by a lawmaker from the NLD's biggest rival, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a party dominated by retired military people and created by the former regime.
Citing a report by the Asian Development Bank, Suu Kyi said Myanmar's ethnic minority areas, which are mostly along the borders with China and Thailand, were the worst affected in terms of poverty.
"Civil war still has not ended. Therefore, it can be seen that protecting the rights of the ethnic minorities is more broad-based than preserving languages and cultures," she added.
President Thein Sein issued a call for dialogue last August with more than a dozen ethnic rebel groups to end decades of fighting with the military on multiple fronts and now refers to the militias as "brothers".
Truces have been agreed with all but one group, the Kachin Independence Army, and several have entered into discussions with the government on terms for political agreements.
Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Martin Petty