In Myanmar, Suu Kyi raises hopes for democracy

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After spending 15 years under house arrest, persecuted for her belief's, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has has won a seat in parliament, her party said.

By Ian Williams, NBC News

YANGON, Myanmar– At 69 years old, Khin Shwe has witnessed countless false promises and frustrated hopes in her country's tragic and often brutal history.

"I really believe this represents change," she told me early Sunday morning, as she left polling station No. 3, housed in a school classroom in the dusty township of Kawhmu.

Like so many here, Khin Shwe was putting her faith – and her vote – behind Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy leader running for a seat in Myanmar’s parliament. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was persecuted for her beliefs, spent 15 years under house arrest.

Suu Kyi, 66, had been up early, inspecting the polling stations. Last week, she expressed concerns about possible cheating.

While there have been reports of minor irregularities, most election observers I spoke to were impressed with the organization of the vote.

"I've monitored polls all across Southeast Asia, from Thailand to Singapore, and this is as good as it could be," said Kyaw Yin Hlaing of Hong Kong's City University.

One American observer, who asked not to be named, was visibly moved by what she witnessed: "Finally seeing this happen! What took them so long?"

Diplomats were also out in force. A representative from the Chinese embassy shook my hand. "Did you think it was free and fair?" he asked me, without a hint of irony.

There were 88,000 voters and 129 polling stations in Suu Kyi's Kawhmu constituency, to the south of Yangon. Suu-Kyi’s carnival-like cavalcade has attracted crowds everywhere it has traveled this weekend.

The polls closed at 4 p.m. with the ritual of an election official calling through loud speakers for any final voters to come forward.

Then the counting began. At polling station No. 3, we joined observers from abroad as the paper ballots were counted. There were 1,112 ballots at this station – a 72 percent voter turnout. Then the ballots were divided according to the votes cast into trays for Suu Kyi’s opponents and a big box for those cast for her.

One election official could hardly contain himself: "She has a big box, because she will be earning most of the votes," he said, giggling uncontrollably.

It came as no real surprise, and crowds gathering outside speculated on the size of Suu Kyi's win.

"Ninety-percent!" ventured one young woman.

"Ninety-five!" replied her friend.

It could be days before the result is official, but Suu Kyi appears to have won a seat in parliament by a landslide.

When I returned to Yangon on Sunday evening, traffic was gridlocked around the run-down headquarters of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi's party. The road was blocked by a euphoric crowd singing and chanting to a hip-hop beat. A big screen gave the party’s unofficial results, which claimed 41 of the 44 seats contested in Sunday's election.

That's a fraction of the total 664 seats in parliament, but this is still a massive step forward for Myanmar.

On the fringes of the crowd I met a singer who I had interviewed on an earlier trip to Myanmar. She had been working on songs in support of Suu Kyi, which that could have landed her in jail just a year ago.

"Can you believe it? Can you believe it?" she said. "There's no going back now."

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