Signs of hope in Myanmar

Supporters of Myanmar's opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi erupted in euphoric cheers Sunday after her party said she won a parliamentary seat in a landmark election, setting the stage for her to take public office for the first time.

The victory, if confirmed, would mark a major milestone in the Southeast Asian nation, where the military has ruled almost exclusively for a half-century and where a new reform-minded government is seeking legitimacy and a lifting of Western sanctions.

It would also mark the biggest prize of Suu Kyi's political career, and a spectacular reversal of fortune for the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate who the former junta had kept imprisoned in her lakeside home for the better part of two decades.

The victory claim was displayed on a digital signboard outside the opposition National League for Democracy's headquarters in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, where supporters gathered by the thousands as the polls closed in the late afternoon. They began wildly shouting upon learning the news, chanting "We won! We won!" while clapping, dancing, waving red party flags and gesturing with thumbs-up and V-for-victory signs.

As more counts came in from the NLD's poll watchers around the country, the crowd grew to as many as 10,000. The party's security guards tried without success to keep the traffic flowing past the people occupying much of the road and all nearby sidewalks.

By 9 p.m., the NLD was claiming victory in 13 constituencies, including two in the capital, Naypyitaw. It claimed substantial leads in about 10 more. No official tallies had been released.

Results in Naypyitaw had been hard to predict, because many of its residents are civil servants and their families dependent on the government for their livelihoods, and the turnout when Suu Kyi campaigned there was noticeably smaller than elsewhere. But the party appeared to be running up large leads over its rival, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

"It is the people's victory! We have taught them a lesson," said a shopkeeper who goes by the single name Thein who wore a T-shirt with Suu Kyi's picture on the front and her party's fighting peacock on the back.

The digital screen displaying results also flashed a message from Suu Kyi to her followers noting that they were understandably happy but should avoid gloating. She cautioned them to "Please refrain from rude behaviour or actions that would make the other side unhappy."

Results were expected to come in slowly from more rural and remote areas. All results must be confirmed by the official electoral commission, however, which may not make an official declaration for days.

Suu Kyi's results were among the first announced; shortly after polls closed, her party had claimed that Suu Kyi was ahead with 65 per cent of the vote in 82 of her constituency's 129 polling stations. The party had staff and volunteers spread throughout the vast rice-farming district, who were calling in preliminary results by phone to their headquarters in Yangon.

The victory claim came despite allegations by her National League for Democracy party that "rampant irregularities" had taken place on voting day. Party spokesman Nyan Win said that by midday alone the party had filed more than 50 complaints to the Election Commission.

He said most alleged violations concerned waxed ballot papers that made it difficult to mark votes. There were also ballot cards that lacked the Election Commission's seal, which would render them invalid.

Sunday's byelection was called to fill just 45 vacant seats in Myanmar's 664-seat national Parliament and will not change the balance of power in a new government that is nominally civilian but still heavily controlled by retired generals. Suu Kyi and other opposition candidates would have almost no say even if they win all the seats they are contesting.

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