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Andrew Buncombe: Freedoms beget freedoms as voters have their say

These polls have to be seen as credible and opponents such as the NLD have to take part

There was never much doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi would handily win the by-election contest that will enable her to take a seat in the lower house of Burma's parliament.

Before yesterday's vote, such was the strength of support for her in the Kawhmu constituency south of Rangoon that her opponents barely bothered to campaign against her.

Contrasted with the sea of red banners, emblazoned with the yellow peacock logo of her National League for Democracy (NLD), that lined the roads in the villages that make up the seat, there were a mere handful from her only real rival, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). But it is far less clear what this series of by-elections means for Burma, for the NLD and for the suddenly weary, 66-year-old Nobel laureate herself.

Even if her party secures each of the 45 seats it was contesting, it will not shift the balance of power away from the military-dominated USDP. Yet at the same time the vote could unleash pressures that are difficult for the government to control.

The authorities in the capital, Naypyidaw, whether in military uniform or in the suits of the purportedly civilian administration, have clearly calculated that it is less dangerous to have Ms Suu Kyi and her party involved in the political process than boycotting them.

They also realise that if the West is to lift economic sanctions against their country, as they desire, these polls have to be seen to be credible, and opponents such as the NLD have to take part.

But freedoms beget further freedoms, participation breeds a sense of entitlement and a media that is now enjoying unprecedented freedoms feels increasingly emboldened.

A general election is scheduled to be held in 2015. Where might this all end? That, perhaps, is the optimists' view. The Burmese democracy movement has been here before, most obviously in 1990 when a landslide victory by the NLD in assembly polls was rejected by the authorities who unleashed a savage crackdown against opponents.

Observers say it remains unclear whether President Thein Sein represents a clean break with that sort of past and is sincere about leading Burma on the path towards full democracy.

But those people who turned out in large numbers to vote yesterday, not just for Aung San Suu Kyi but for other members of the political opposition, will have hoped that the process it represented is irreversible.