By Hla Hla Htay (AFP) – Mar 31, 2012
KAWHMU, Myanmar — Voting began Sunday in Myanmar elections seen as a test of the government's budding reforms, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi standing for a seat in parliament for the first time.
A victory for Suu Kyi would cap a remarkable transformation for the 66-year-old icon of the pro-democracy movement, who spent most of the past 22 years locked up by the generals who ruled the country for decades.
Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept to a landslide election victory in 1990 but the junta never recognised the result.
Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, was not a candidate herself on that occasion because she was under house arrest.
Her party is contesting 44 of the 45 seats at stake in Sunday's vote -- not enough to threaten the ruling party's majority, but a seat in parliament would give the opposition leader a chance to shape legislation for the first time.
Polling stations opened at 6:00 am (2330 GMT Saturday) and were due to close at 4:00 pm, with more than six million people eligible to vote. The results are expected within about one week, according to election officials.
Observers say the regime wants the pro-democracy leader to win a place in parliament to burnish its reform credentials and smooth the way for an easing of Western sanctions.
A 2010 general election, won by the military's political proxies, was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and the exclusion of Suu Kyi, who was released from seven straight years of house arrest shortly afterwards.
In the run-up to this Sunday's by-elections, the NLD complained about irregularities, including alleged intimidation of candidates and the appearance of the names of some dead people on the electoral roll.
"I don't think we can consider it a genuinely free and fair election," Suu Kyi told a news conference on Friday.
She said the irregularities were "really beyond what is acceptable for a democratic election" but stopped short of announcing a boycott.
"We are determined to go forward because we think that this is what our people want," Suu Kyi said.
A gruelling schedule of rallies and speeches has taken its toll on the health of the opposition leader, who cancelled campaigning in the week before the vote after she fell ill and was put on a drip during a visit to the south.
NLD spokesman Nyan Win Saturday said that Suu Kyi was "fine" as she travelled to her rural constituency of Kawhmu, about two hours' drive from Yangon, where small groups of people gathered to cheer her arrival.
"She is weak, but we do not need to worry," he said.
Unlike in 2010, the government has invited foreign observers and journalists to witness a vote seen as a major test of its reform credentials.
"This is a crucial moment in Myanmar's history," UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana said in a statement ahead of the vote.
"The flawed electoral process of the 2010 national elections, which failed to meet international standards, was a missed opportunity for Myanmar to address its challenges in democratisation. It should not be repeated as Myanmar enters a new and more open era," he added.
After almost half a century of iron-fisted military rule, the junta in March last year handed power to a new government led by President Thein Sein, one of a clutch of former generals who shed their uniforms to contest the 2010 election.
Since then, the reform-minded regime has surprised even its critics with a string of moves such as releasing hundreds of political prisoners and welcoming the NLD back into mainstream politics.
But the continued existence of political detainees, ongoing fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels and alleged human rights abuses remain major concerns for Western nations which have imposed sanctions on the regime.
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