Suu Kyi victory in Burma 'triumph of the people'
'We hope this will be the beginning of a new era,' pro-democracy leader says
Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's victory in parliamentary elections in Burma is the biggest prize of her political career.
But the weekend vote for only a few dozen legislative seats may have sown the seeds of something far more significant — the possibility her party could sweep the next balloting in 2015 and take control of government of the country also known as Myanmar.
"We hope this will be the beginning of a new era," a beaming Suu Kyi, 66, said in a brief victory speech Monday, a day after the byelection in which her National League for Democracy party won almost all of the 44 seats it contested.
The win was "not so much our triumph, as a triumph of the people," she told a euphoric crowd of thousands gathered outside her tumbledown party headquarters in Yangon, where joyous supporters thrust hands in the air and monks cradled magazine-size posters bearing her image.
The last time her party won a landslide victory, during a general election in 1990, the then-ruling army junta annulled the results and stayed in power 21 more years. However, times have changed dramatically since then in Myanmar, previously called Burma. The junta is no more, and the country's new leaders -- many of whom are former generals -- have proven with Sunday's poll that they are capable of taking concrete steps toward democratic rule, even if they had little to lose by doing so this time around.
But much remains the same: The military and the retired generals who hold the nation's top posts still wield near-absolute power, and Suu Kyi and her party will occupy only a small minority in the 664-seat legislature -- not enough to change a constitution engineered to keep the status quo by allotting 25 per cent of parliament's seats to the army.
Reducing the military's participation in government "is one of the most important changes" that need to be made, said Su Su Lwin, an opposition candidate who also won a seat in Sunday's poll. And perhaps one of the most difficult. "There's a lot of work ahead," she said.
Party remains popular
The weekend election results indicate the popularity of the party Suu Kyi founded in 1988 remains strong -- strong enough, perhaps, to secure the legislative majority it would need during the next national poll to choose the president.
However, it is unclear whether Suu Kyi would run. She has not declared any intention to do so, but on Friday she said the byelection's outcome would "very much influence what happens in 2015."
A provision in Myanmar's constitution bars people from the nation's top post if they or any of their relatives are foreign citizens. Suu Kyi married a British national, Michael Aris, who died in 1999, and their two children were born abroad and do not live in Myanmar.
There are also concerns over Suu Kyi's health. She suspended her last week of campaigning because of fatigue, and she would be 69 when the next vote is held.
There is speculation that the government is only using Suu Kyi to impress Western nations and get years of economic sanctions lifted. Still, her entry into the legislature is hugely symbolic, as is her party's overwhelming win.
"This election is an important step in Burma's democratic transformation, and we hope it is an indication that the government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency, and reform," the White House said in a statement Monday.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate will take public office for the first time and lead the NLD in parliament, where it will hold just about six per cent of the seats.
Victory a milestone
The victory marks a major milestone in the Southeast Asian nation, which is emerging from a ruthless era of military rule, and also an astonishing reversal of fortune for a woman who became one of the world's most prominent prisoners of conscience.
Nay Zin Latt, an adviser to President Thein Sein, told The Associated Press he was "not really surprised that the NLD had won a majority of seats" in the byelection. Asked whether Suu Kyi might be given a cabinet post, he said: "Everything is possible. She could be given any position of responsibility because of her capacity."
The victories for Suu Kyi's party included all four seats up for grabs in the administrative capital, Naypyidaw, which is populated by civil servants, in an embarrassing sign of defeat for the government.
An official from the Election Commission said full results from remote areas were expected by midweek. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
The former junta had kept Suu Kyi imprisoned in her lakeside home for the better part of two decades. When she was finally released in late 2010, just after a general election that was deemed by most as neither free nor fair, few could have imagined she would so quickly make the leap from democracy advocate to elected official — opening the way for a potential presidential run in 2015.
But Burma has changed dramatically over that time. The junta finally ceded power last year, and although many of its leaders merely swapped their military uniforms for civilian suits, they went on to stun even their staunchest critics by releasing political prisoners, signing cease-fires with rebels, relaxing press censorship and opening a direct dialogue with Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest.
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Hoping to convince the international community of its progress, Burma invited dozens of Western and Asian election observers to monitor the vote and granted visas to hundreds of foreign journalists.
Malgorzata Wasilewska, head of the European Union's observer team, called the voting process "convincing enough" but stopped short of declaring it credible yet. "In the polling stations that I visited … I saw plenty of good practice and good will, which is very important," she said.
The United States and the European Union have said that the fairness of the voting will be a major factor in their decision on whether to lift economic sanctions that were imposed to penalize the former junta.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton congratulated Burma for holding the poll. Speaking at a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, she said Washington was committed to supporting the country's reform effort.
"Even the most repressive regimes can reform, and even the most closed societies can open," she said.