By TODD PITMAN
March 31, 2012 11:22 PM EST
Myanmar held a landmark election Sunday 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.
Sunday'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 have trickled down to their village, which has no electricity, running water or paved roads. But they hope Suu Kyi can change that.
"We've heard a lot on the radio about the changes, but our day-to-day life is the same," said one voter, Go Khehtay, who cast his ballot for Suu Kyi. "She may not be able to do anything at this stage. But one day, I believe she'll be able to bring real change."
Another voter, Mya Thaung, said Suu Kyi represents a dream for a brighter future.
"Life is tough here. We make just enough to survive," said the father of four. "We just hope she can improve our lives."
Last year, Myanmar's long-entrenched military junta handed power to a civilian government dominated by retired officers that skeptics decried as a proxy for continued military rule. But the new rulers - who came to power in a 2010 vote that critics say was neither free nor fair - have surprised the world with a wave of reform, prompted in part by a desire to get Western sanctions lifted and to come out from under the influence of Myanmar's powerful neighbor, China.
The government of President Thein Sein, himself a retired lieutenant general, has freed political prisoners, signed truces with rebel groups and opened a direct dialogue with Suu Kyi, who wields enough moral authority to greatly influence the Myanmar policy of the U.S. and other powers.
Her decision to endorse Thein Sein's reforms so far and run in the election was a great gamble. Once in parliament, she can seek to influence policy and challenge the government from within. But she also risks legitimizing a regime she has fought against for decades while gaining little true legislative power.
Suu Kyi is in a "strategic symbiosis" with some of the country's generals and ex-generals, said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar expert and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.
"They need her and she needs them to break the 25 years of political stalemate," Zarni said. "She holds the key for the regime's need for its international acceptance and normalization."
On Friday, Suu Kyi told reporters that she hoped "to win the military over, to (make them) understand that we have to work together if we want peace and if we want progress."
The military must understand that "the future of this country is their future and that reform in this country means reform for them as well," she said.
Sunday's poll marks the first foray into electoral politics by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party since winning a landslide election victory in 1990. The military annulled those results and kept Suu Kyi in detention for much of the next two decades. The party boycotted the last vote in 2010, but in January the government amended key electoral laws, paving the way for a run in this weekend's ballot.
During a news conference Friday, Suu Kyi cast serious doubt over the ballot's fairness, saying it could not be called free or fair because of myriad irregularities and intimidation during the campaign. Her party says electoral officials have illegally canvassed for the ruling party, opposition posters have been vandalized, and that while some voter lists lack eligible voters, others include the names of the dead.
Still, Suu Kyi said that she had no regrets in joining the race, and that she was determined to go ahead "because we think this is what our people want."