A wave of hope and excitement – shackled and repressed here during so many years of military rule – gripped parts of Burma yesterday as Aung San Suu Kyi and her party claimed victory in a series of polls that could determine whether the country continues on its stumbling journey towards democracy.
Although the outcome of the 45 by-election seats contested will do little to immediately take power from the hands of military-backed government, the opportunity for thousands of people to vote for the Nobel laureate and her party for the first time in more than two decades created a rare buzz of optimism.
It also paved the way for Ms Suu Kyi to enter parliament for the first time, a right denied to her more than two decades ago when the junta refused to recognise her overwhelming victory in 1990 elections, instead condemning her to long spells under house arrest.
Last night, supporters of Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) gathered at the party's headquarters, as unofficial results began to trickle in. While the final tally may not be announced for several days, the NLD party had claimed victories in at least 19 seats. On a large electronic signboard it was claimed that the 66-year-old party leader had, as expected, won her contest in the Kawhmu constituency located an hour south of the former colonial capital. Crowds wearing red T-shirts and waving banners gathered to dance, sing and cheer.
"It is natural that the NLD members and their supporters are joyous at this point," Ms Suu Kyi said, according to Reuters. "However, it is necessary to avoid manners and actions that will make the other parties and members upset. It is very important that NLD members take special care that the success of the people is a dignified one."
Burma's political opposition is no stranger to false dawns and observers have pointed out that the series of reforms undertaken by a purportedly government which took power last year remain limited. While most political prisoners have been released, hundreds remain behind bars, and a constitution is in place which ensures the military retains a controlling hand on the political process. Former military officers dominate the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
But for those who poured out to vote in polling stations in villages and townships across the country – even if the process was not without hitches or irregularities – the undertaking bore with it hopes and desires that few would have dared voice just a couple of years ago.
Aung Aung, 56, a former political activist who was imprisoned for his role in the democracy movement more than 20 years ago, said he believed the army still controlled the country and had simply taken off their uniforms. But he added: "We felt lucky to have the chance to vote now, to vote for democracy."
Ms Suu Kyi, who spent Saturday night in a village in Kawhmu, told supporters: "If you vote we will win and we will be able to work towards development in the country. Even though I cannot see your faces I can hear you, and if we win, I will come and see you very often."
Burma is keen to continue the move towards reengagement with the West after many years of punishing economic sanctions. The US and other Western nations are keen to have greater involvement with Burma, not only to counter growing Chinese political influence but to try to secure energy deals that have so far gone to Chinese, Thai, Indian and South Korean companies.
Prior to the by-elections, one Western diplomat based in Burma said that an election process that was seen as largely fair was an essential step that needed to be completed before EU sanctions would be removed. Even now, there are voices who caution against such a move. Aung Din, head of the US Campaign for Burma and a former political prisoner, said: "The United States and EU should not reward the regime simply because the NLD has some seats in the parliament. They should wait until we see clearly how these newly elected MPs are treated by the USDP and the military in the parliament."
Most Burmese are wretchedly poor and uneducated, a situation that the series of military juntas that has ruled since 1962 has been happy to maintain. Many of those who said they would vote for Ms Suu Kyi said they supported her because of a blind trust that she and her party can bring changes to their lives. In Kawhmu, the most pressing needs are jobs, schools and clinics.
Ahead of yesterday's polls, the NLD complained that the process had not been entirely fair and that there had been a particular problem with voting lists. International observers said there had been a number of irregularities but that many were the result of lack of democratic experience rather than intent.
Lone road to democracy: from house arrest to Parliament
1962 The military, led by General Ne Win, takes power in a coup.
1988 Aung San Suu Kyi co-founds the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and becomes general secretary.
1989 Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest for the first time. In 1990, the NLD wins 392 of 492 seats, but the military refuses to cede power.
1991 Suu Kyi wins Nobel Peace Prize.
1995 "The Lady" is freed in July, though her movements are restricted. Five years later, she is placed under house arrest again.
1999 Michael Aris, Suu Kyi's husband, dies of cancer. Having spent four years apart (because Suu Kyi was afraid to leave Burma in case she could not return), he was denied a visa to see her one last time.
2002 Suu Kyi is freed in May, only to be detained again a year later.
2010 Burma's military holds the first elections in 20 years, won by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Suu Kyi is released a week later.
2011 Thein Sein is sworn in as president. In December, the NLD re-registers as a political party.
2012 Yesterday, the NLD declared Suu Kyi had won a historic victory in the Kawhmu by-election, taking 99 per cent of the vote.Reuse content