Myanmar votes in historic election; spotlight on Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi complains of cheating, but almost certain to win lower house seat; fair polls seen as crucial to ease Western economic sanctions.

Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar election 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj )
Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar election 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj )
YANGON - Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi looked set to clinch a seat in parliament in Myanmar's third election in half a century on Sunday, a crucial test of reforms that could convince the West to end sanctions and its pariah image.
The United States and European Union have hinted that some sanctions - imposed over the past two decades in response to human rights abuses - may be lifted if the election is free and fair, unleashing a wave of investment in the impoverished but resource-rich country bordering rising powers India and China.
The charismatic and wildly popular Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate held for 15 years under house arrest until 2010, complained last week of "irregularities," though none significant enough to derail her party's bid for 44 of the 45 available by-election seats.
Voters quietly filed into makeshift polling stations at schools, religious centres and community buildings, some gushing with excitement after casting ballots for the frail Suu Kyi, or "Aunty Suu" as she is affectionately known.
"My whole family voted for her and I am sure all relatives and friends of us will vote for her too," said Naw Ohn Kyi, 59, a farmer from Warthinkha.
In Suu Kyi's rustic constituency of bamboo-thatched homes in Kawhmu, south of the biggest city Yangon, she looked poised for a landslide win. "So far as my friends and I have checked, almost everyone we asked voted for Aunty Suu," said Ko Myint Aung, 27-year shop owner from Kawhmu.
Ko Myint Aung was one of 15 constituents contacted by Reuters, who all said they had voted for Suu Kyi.
To be regarded as credible, the vote needs the blessing of Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest in November 2010, six days after a widely criticized general election that paved the way for the end of 49 years of direct army rule and the opening of a parliament stacked with retired and serving military.
President Thein Sein, a general in the former military junta, has surprised the world with the most dramatic political reforms since the military took power in a 1962 coup in the former British colony then known as Burma.
In the span of a year, the government has freed hundreds of political prisoners, held peace talks with ethnic rebels, relaxed strict media censorship, allowed trade unions, and showed signs of pulling back from the powerful economic and political orbit of its giant neighbor China.
It was rewarded last November when Hillary Clinton made the first visit to the country by a US secretary of state since 1955. Business executives, mostly from Asia but many from Europe, have swarmed to Yangon in recent weeks to hunt for investment opportunities in the country of 60 million people, one of the last frontier markets in Asia.