WAH THIN KHA, Myanmar — Myanmar held a landmark election today that is expected to send democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament for her first public office since she launched her decades-long struggle against the military-dominated government.
Today's by-election, to fill 43 of parliament's 664 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 sway even if they win all of the seats they are contesting because parliament will remain dominated by the military and the military-backed ruling party.
But a win by Suu Kyi 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 the economic sanctions they have imposed on the country for years.
The 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate is vying to represent the constituency of Wah Thin Kha, one of dozens of dirt-poor villages south of the main city of Yangon. She is running against the ruling party's Soe Win, a former army doctor.
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 reforms, prompted in part by a desire to get Western sanctions lifted and to come out from under the influence of 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.