For most of the quarter-century since she won her first landslide election victory, Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest by a military regime unwilling to let the charismatic daughter of a national independence hero challenge its rule.
Now, less than five years after being set free, the democracy icon appears set to seize back the election the military stole from her in 1990. In Myanmar, initial results from Sunday’s vote showed a stunning series of wins that promised to end more than five decades of military rule and had the country’s army-backed leadership acknowledging defeat.
Hopes for change spilled onto the street in front of the downtown Rangoon office for Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party on Monday. Supporters waved flags and chanted “NLD! The people’s party,” while others held aloft cell phones with a scrolling ticker-tape message: “NLD WIN.”
“There are no words to express how happy I am,” said rickshaw driver Thein Tun, 34.
For the first 24 hours after Sunday’s polls closed, the country sat in wait, with little but social media rumours to go on as election workers slowly counted and tabulated results. Then, as an afternoon downpour turned Rangoon’s streets into rivers on Monday, results began to flood in for the NLD.
In Rangoon, 44 out of 45 lower house seats. In Bago, 27 out of 28. In Mon State, 10 out of 10, numbers reported by the party itself – although they broadly matched less complete official results released at a slower pace by election authorities.
In the upper house, party numbers showed Ms. Suu Kyi in a perfect sweep of those three regions and others, including the Ayeyarwady Delta – the victories coming so fast it grew hard to keep track.
“I remember she once said back when things did not seem so hopeful, ‘We do the impossible every day – miracles will take longer,’” said Rena Pederson, who wrote The Burma Spring, a biography of Ms. Suu Kyi. “She and the democracy supporters have indeed achieved a miracle.”
Numbers had yet to emerge from many regions on Monday night and a final count will take two weeks.
But as results showed a cascade of Myanmar’s elite tumbling from power – parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, Union Solidarity and Development party chairman Htay Oo, ministers of the president’s office, former generals and wealthy businessmen – the ruling party acknowledged it had not done well.
“We lost,” Mr. Htay Oo, a confidante of President Thein Sein, told Reuters. “We do accept the results without any reservations.”
The President and military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing both pledged to respect the outcome of the election, which local and international observers said was well-run, with only minor problems.
Still, distrust ran deep, amid questions about whether Myanmar’s powerful generals – self-styled defenders of the nation – will truly be willing to relinquish legislative power to a woman they long sought to silence.
“Burma is full of contradictions and crushed hopes, so I’m not sure if anyone is truly confident in this,” said Jesper Bengtsson, the author of Aung San Suu Kyi: A Biography. “They are happy now, of course, but they also know that Burma is Burma and expect there will be trouble ahead.” Myanmar was formerly known as Burma.
Ms. Suu Kyi, in a brief Monday morning appearance, urged calm.
“The losers must accept the result with courage and dignity and without provocation, and the winners must also celebrate with dignity and good hearts,” she said.
Surrounded by a mob of cheering supporters, U Bo Bo, a candidate from Yangon’s Sanchaung township, did not want to discuss the size of the win. “We were all so happy back in 1990 and then we were put in jail, so I don’t want to go there.”
Kyaw Thu, director of civil society group Paung Ku, called it a “time to celebrate – with a cautious celebration.” In Myanmar, he said, “everyone is aware there are many challenges ahead with the handover of power.”
The military permanently occupies a quarter of seats in parliament, so Ms. Suu Kyi needs to win 67 per cent of contested constituencies to assume a majority and be assured her choice of president.
But in a country where the generals still control the military and key components of government – including the right to name three important cabinet ministers — the possibility of a big win thrusts Ms. Suu Kyi into a delicate position.
“The issue is whether or not they’ve done too well, and whether or not they’ve poked the bear,” said Bridget Welsh, a Myanmar expert who is a senior research associate at Ipek University in Ankara.
For the military, “if you rub people in their face, saying, ‘We’ve beaten you, people hate you,’ then you’re going to get a reaction.”
History has shown dangers in the opposite strategy, too. In 1990, Ms. Suu Kyi’s party let victory slip away in part because fears of alienating the generals kept it from being assertive enough, said Bertil Lintner, an author who has written about the country for decades.
“That was a mistake, because they gave the military enough time to regroup and counter-attack,” he said. “What the NLD should have done at that time was to declare an election victory right away.”
Ms. Suu Kyi has pledged to run a government of national reconciliation, saying the election “should not be a zero sum game of winner taking all and loser losing everything. This is not what democracy should be about.”
But making good on that promise will require real concessions, such as giving important cabinet seats to opponents.
The cost of failure is high, said Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who is now a political analyst, pointing to the damage done to Myanmar since the military overruled the 1990 election.
“We are in a worse position now than we were then,” he said. “There has been a wholesale pillage of the country’s resources. … Let’s hope that people have the sense to realize that we can’t afford another misstep like that.”Report Typo/Error