Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi claims election victory amid euphoric scenes

Supporters react to Suu Kyi's election victory. Picture: Khin Maung Win/AP
Supporters react to Suu Kyi's election victory. Picture: Khin Maung Win/AP
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A SMALL digital billboard above the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Rangoon announced the news, to uproar: Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has finally won a seat in Burma’s parliament.

Shortly after the announcement, traffic was shut off on the street and hundreds of supporters draped with red flags and emblazoned with the party symbol, a flying peacock, took to raucous celebration.

Throughout the day, the playing of loud music or display of party propaganda had been banned. But as soon as the clock struck six, convoys of trucks mounted with tulip speakers wound their way down Pyay Road, past Lake Inya, overlooked by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, covered with people gripping red flags and screaming at the sky.

It may have been an early announcement, but if confirmed the victory that marks a huge milestone for Burma, a country in which the military has ruled almost exclusively for 50 years and where the military-backed government now seeks to improve ties with the West.

On the eve of the elections, after a gruelling three-month campaign in which the 66-year-old travelled the length of the country, Ms Suu Kyi slept in her hometown, the tiny village of Wah Tin Kha, the seat that she has been contesting.

Throngs of supporters held an overnight vigil outside her house before heading to polling stations that opened at 6am in the morning. Residents here are starkly aware of the need for development.

“If you vote for us,” Ms Suu Kyi said to a crowd a crowd standing in the dark outside her house, “we will win and be able to help you develop.”

Even if Ms Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, win all of the 45 seats it is contesting, it will not come close to changing the balance of power in the country, as the total number of seats up for election represents less than 7 per cent of the 664-seat parliament.

What her long-awaited entry into Burmese politics will do is open up a new line of trade between Burma and the US, which has hoped to expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the EU and Australia, potentially unleashing a wave of investment in the impoverished, but resource-rich country that borders India and China.

Maxic Biellan, a businessman who travelled 20 miles out of Rangoon to hear Ms Suu Kyi talk, spoke of his reasons for voting NLD: “I have enough for food and shelter, but our people are suffering economically, so every day I suffer because of them. Our country depends on Europe and America, not China. The Chinese only take from this country. If the US and EU gather around us, we will be able to develop.”

Critics saw Ms Suu Kyi’s decision to work with president Thein Sein as a huge risk, speculating her political voice as a dissident may be drowned out once she enters legitimate politics.

In the lead-up to the elections, Ms Suu Kyi cast doubt on the ballot, saying it could not be called free or fair because of irregularities in voting lists, intimidation and harassment. Old habits die hard, it seems, as on the night she lay sleeping in Wah Tin Kha, local radio reported 15 government trucks driving through the district giving locals misinformation to spoil their votes.

Once in parliament, however, she can seek to challenge government policy from within.

“They need her and she needs them to break 25 years of political stalemate,” said Dr Maung Zarni, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “She holds the key for the regime’s need for international acceptance and normalisation.”

As political songs echo through Rangoon, all eyes are on the pace of reforms in the future. The Burmese are well aware of the military’s capacity to procrastinate and stymie progress.

If recent months are anything to go by, the country has taken a giant leap towards the long-heralded new dawn the world anticipates.