From Prisoner to Parliament in Myanmar

Yangon, Myanmar – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy advocate silenced for two decades by Myanmar’s generals with house arrests and overturned elections, assumed a new role in her country’s political transition on Sunday, apparently winning a seat in Parliament to make the remarkable shift from dissident to lawmaker.

The main opposition party announced her victory on Sunday; if the result is confirmed, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace laureate and the face of Myanmar’s democracy movement, will hold a public office for the first time. But despite her global prominence, she will be joining a Parliament that is still overwhelmingly controlled by the military-backed ruling party.

A nominally civilian government took power one year ago after years of oppressive military rule and introduced political changes it hoped would persuade Western nations to end economic sanctions. Sunday’s elections were seen as a barometer for the government’s commitment to change. To many here they represented a sea change; for the first time in two decades people in 44 districts across Myanmar had the chance to vote for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy.

Outside Myanmar, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 66, who spent 15 years under house arrest, is a symbol of moral fortitude in the face of oppression. Inside Myanmar, she is also a repository for the wide-ranging hopes of a long-suffering population.

With her entry into electoral politics, that role may change. Her party, which has been vague in its prescriptions for the country, will be forced to take specific stands in the country’s two houses of Parliament, where the debates have been increasingly lively in recent months.

But on Sunday, hundreds of frenzied supporters reveled in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory as tallies from polling places, displayed on a large screen outside her party’s headquarters in Yangon, showed her with an overwhelming lead in her race.

“I feel like I want to dance,” said Khin Maung Myint, a 65-year-old painter in the crowd. “I’m so happy that they beat the military. We need a party that stands for the people.”

U Min Zaw, a goldsmith who also supports Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, was more reserved, saying that he realized his vote on Sunday would go only so far — the dominance of the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, would remain intact.

“This is just a little step, just a little democracy,” Mr. Min Zaw said. The National League for Democracy will have at best a small minority in Parliament, he said. But “the future is brighter than ever.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Istanbul for a meeting on Syria, welcomed Sunday’s vote in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

“It is too early to know what the progress of recent months means and whether it will be sustained,” Mrs. Clinton said. “There are no guarantees about what lies ahead for the people of Burma, but after a day responding to a brutal dictator in Syria, who would rather destroy his own country than let it move toward freedom, it is heartening to be reminded that even the most repressive regime can reform and even the most closed society can open.”

Hundreds of foreign journalists and numerous teams of foreign monitors were allowed into Myanmar to witness the voting, a contrast to previous years when a hermetic military government tried to keep out prying eyes.

The European Union and the United States have said that the fairness of the outcome will be crucial in determining whether they lift their economic sanctions against the country.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials from her party complained of a litany of “irregularities” during the campaign, but the alleged infractions — defacing of posters and campaigning by government officials on behalf of the ruling party in contravention of Myanmar’s Constitution — appeared minor compared with the harsh treatment of the opposition in years past.

Significantly, local election commission officials said that four candidates from the National League for Democracy in the country’s capital, Naypyidaw, were running ahead of their rivals from the ruling party by large margins. Naypyidaw, a newly constructed city, is overwhelmingly populated by civil servants, and the strength of the opposition there, if confirmed, would suggest disaffection from within the ranks of the government.

One of the seats being contested in Naypyidaw is the former constituency of President Thein Sein. Mr. Thein Sein, a former general, was forced to resign from Parliament when elected president last March, a requirement in the country’s Constitution.

State-owned television did not announce results on its 8 p.m. news program, but showed one hour of scenes of voters inside polling places. An announcer said that the authorities had done everything in their power to ensure “free and disciplined” voting.

From a strictly numerical standpoint, the results will not affect the balance of power in Myanmar — fewer than 10 percent of the seats in Parliament were in play.

But voters on Sunday described it as a joyous day, another step toward democracy as the country undergoes radical changes under President Thein Sein, who offered an olive branch to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi last year as part of his reform program.

In a neighborhood of crumbling buildings and trash-strewn streets, Daw Khin Maung Mya, 76, said she was filled with emotion after voting.

“I feel like crying when I talk about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said after casting her vote. “It felt so good to vote for her party — only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can save us from deep poverty.”

Voters said they felt more free than in the past to express themselves, both in the voting booth and in public.

“We used to fear speaking with foreigners about democracy,” Daw Kyi Kyi Tun, 50, a former schoolteacher, told a reporter after voting in Yangon. “Now we have courage.”

Officials began tallying votes after the polls closed in the late afternoon, including in the constituency where Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was a candidate, an impoverished rural area south of Yangon, the country’s main city. (Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi did not vote on Sunday; her party decided not to transfer her official residency to her constituency.)

Voters in Myanmar appeared to relish what in established democracies has become a mundane process. They were careful to follow the procedures: showing their identity cards, ticking their choice on the ballot, folding the ballot and dropping it in the ballot box.

For many supporters of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, it was the first time they had voted in 22 years. The party boycotted the general election in 2010, which was called by a military junta, the predecessor to the current government.

The last time the National League for Democracy was on the ballot, in 1990, it won a resounding victory. But the junta ignored the result and in subsequent years crushed the opposition.

Official results were not expected for days, and the outcome will need to be confirmed by election officials.

On Sunday, U Nyan Win, the campaign manager for the National League for Democracy, said there had been about 50 irregularities filed by midday, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Nyan Win said that waxed ballot papers had made it difficult to mark votes and that some ballot cards lacked the seal of the Election Commission, which could render them invalid.