REPORTING FROM YANGON, MYANMAR AND NEW DELHI, INDIA — The people of Myanmar got their first taste of democracy in two decades Sunday when they elected popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to a seat in Parliament, according to her party, ushering in a new political era in the long-isolated Southeast Asian nation.
Hundreds of people cheered and shouted when a large screen outside the offices of her National League for Democracy party announced a large win estimated unofficially at 82% for the pro-democracy icon. The party also claimed it had won at least 10 other seats in the 45-seat contest. During the campaigning, supporters waited hours in the searing heat to catch a glimpse of her.
Despite Suu Kyi’s larger-than-life presence in Myanmar, also known as Burma, the victory — assuming it’s confirmed — represents the first time she’s held office, having remained under house arrest during previous marred general elections in 2010 and 1990.
While voting was peaceful Sunday, there were allegations of vote-tampering and harassment. The pro-military government hopes these are minor enough to convince Western nations it’s time to drop crippling economic sanctions. For most Burmese, however, the heady feeling of having an electoral voice overcame other concerns.
"I voted for Daw Suu!" said Ma Thu, a 33-year-old Yangon resident, using the politician’s honorific title while pointing at the fighting peacock electoral symbol representing Suu Kyi’s party. "I'm so pleased that I can vote for her, and I feel proud that I can say that."
In fact, Ma Thu doesn’t actually live in Suu Kyi’s constituency and her vote supported HIV/AIDS activist Phyu Phyu Thin, also with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party. Such ebullient support for Suu Kyi, 66, has both heartened her long-banned party and made it realize the importance of broadening beyond its standard bearer, the delicate Nobel Prize winner.
"I didn't vote for Daw Suu?” Ma Thu continued. “What do you mean? Voting for Phyu Phyu Thin is the same as voting for Aung San Suu Kyi, isn't it?"
Analysts and activists welcomed the news of Suu Kyi’s victory but cautioned that this was only a first step. Aung Myo Thein, an official with the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based group fighting for the release of detainees, said having her in parliament would be great, although it remained to be seen how effective she’d be opposing entrenched government policies.
Those who see this election as a watershed — particularly Western investors — rather than a largely symbolic milestone, are in for a rude awakening, added Shawn Kelley, an independent analyst and former Burma fellow at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University. “Investors who think they’re going to go in without knowing anyone and get rich are nuts,” he said. “This is a positive sign they’ve opened the door, which makes it more difficult to close, but there are still a lot of obstacles.”
The finer points of free and fair elections seemed lost on many of the 6.5-million eligible voters Sunday electing candidates for 43 national and two regional assembly seats. The last relatively fair election in 1990 saw Suu Kyi’s party sweep to victory nationally, shocking the generals who then banned the National League for Democracy, jailed many of its members and nullified the results.
Suu Kyi and her opposition colleagues will have little effective voice in the 664-seat parliament dominated by the military and proxy representatives. But her election still has enormous symbolic importance, political analysts said, on the road toward national reconciliation.
"She can change the atmosphere of the parliament, make it more transparent, and engage in actual open debate,” said Maung Wuntha, a political analyst in Yangon. “This is why just one person can change the parliament."
— Gabrielle Paluch and Mark Magnier
Photo: Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves to the crowd as she leaves National League for Democracy headquarters after addressing journalists and supporters. Suu Kyi hailed a "new era" for Myanmar and called for a show of political unity after her party claimed a major victory in landmark by-elections. Credit: Christophe Archambault / AFP / Getty IMages