WAH THIN KHA, Myanmar – Myanmar held a landmark election today that was expected to send democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament for her first public office since launching her decades-long struggle against the military-dominated government.
Today’s by-election, to fill a few dozen vacant seats, followed months of surprising reforms by a nominally civilian government that does not relish ceding ground to Suu Kyi, but which must appear more democratic in order to emerge from decades of international isolation that have crippled the Southeast Asian nation’s economy.
Suu Kyi’s party and its opposition allies will have almost no say even if they win all the seats they are contesting, because the 664-seat parliament will remain dominated by the military and the military-backed ruling party.
But if Suu Kyi takes office as expected, it would symbolize a giant leap toward national reconciliation after nearly a quarter-century in which she spent most of her time under house arrest.
It could also nudge Western powers closer to easing economic sanctions they have imposed on the country for years.
In Wah Thin Kha, one of dozens of dirt-poor villages south of the main city of Yangon, which the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate is vying to represent, hundreds of voters lined up outside a single-story public school to cast ballots in a local race pitting Suu Kyi against the ruling party’s Soe Min, a former army doctor.
Suu Kyi slept overnight in the tiny village and then paid a morning visit to the polling station, driving slowly through a crowd of supporters and into the school compound to inspect voting facilities. She chatted briefly with voters and returned to her car to begin the drive back to Yangon.
Most residents here are poor, uneducated rice farmers who say that none of Myanmar’s much-heralded reforms has trickled down to their village, which has no electricity, running water or paved roads. But they hope Suu Kyi can change that.