The sun had not yet risen when the Myakanthar polling station in south-eastern Rangoon opened its gate to voters Sunday. But more than 70 people had already gathered outside, arriving in the darkness for an election expected to challenge Myanmar's long years of military rule.
"This is like the dawn of our country," said Zau Lunn, a local conservationist who rose at 4:30 a.m. to get an early place in line. "Everyone is counting on a new situation. Therefore, everyone wants to vote."
In fishing villages and mountain hamlets, on city sidewalks and muddy village paths, tens of millions of Myanmarese clutched voter identification cards in long queues, a remarkable scene for a country ruled for five decades by strongmen who kept it in isolation and brooked no challenge to their authority.
Sunday's ballot was the first to be contested nationwide by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi since she won a landslide victory in a 1990 election ignored by the military.
Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmarese military, offered an assurance Sunday that soldiers would not step in this time. "What I hope through this election is that we will have a result that can build a strong democratic system," he told reporters.
Voting was marked by some minor scuffles, technical glitches, problems with a faulty voter's list and allegations of impropriety in advance polls. But the election was generally conducted in peace, with well-ordered polling stations and few complaints of voter intimidation. International observers were given broad access, even to military barracks normally off limits to foreigners.
The election appeared to be "free and fair," said Aye Kyaw, a former student leader who is executive director of the Open Myanmar Initiative, which delivered voter training.
A final result isn't expected for two weeks, although unofficial preliminary numbers were expected within hours of polls closing at 4 p.m. Sunday local time. Shortly after 9 p.m., Ms. Suu Kyi's party said it had won three Rangoon townships, including Seik Kan, which has a large military and civil-service population.
The coming days of counting and verifying ballots will provide a pivotal test of pledges by Myanmar's military-backed
President Thein Sein pledged to respect the results of an election expected to show strong support for Ms. Suu Kyi.
The President has overseen a half decade of reforms, after the military handed power to a putatively civilian government – though one made up largely of generals who swapped uniforms for suits – that released political prisoners, lifted most media censorship and opened the economy to more foreign investment.
Sunday's ballot offered a chance to further diminish the military's influence, and voting gave many a feeling of "catharsis," said Canadian Ambassador Mark McDowell. The embassy dispatched seven observer teams to Rangoon and four states, and saw few problems. "People seemed to embrace this election with a great deal of interest and enthusiasm, even if there was a little bit of apprehension and trepidation."
In Rangoon, Aye Aye Thoo rose at 3 a.m. to queue early and make room for latecomers. "We no longer want cronies and a small number of people benefiting from our natural resources," she said. "I want the future generation to be proud of being from Myanmar."
Some 90 parties contested the election, many of them small groups in ethnic areas with powerful local identities. But the main battleground lay between the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which currently holds power, and Ms. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.
Constitutionally barred from the presidency, Ms. Suu Kyi needs a large number of seats to ensure she can choose the country's next president, a position that holds significant executive power. Ms. Suu Kyi has said she will "be above the president."
But her threshold for victory is high. Her opponents in the USDP are buttressed by the military, which is guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in parliament. Myanmar's generals will continue to hold broad sway no matter who is elected, since the constitution that enshrines the military's powers can't be changed without a 75-per-cent vote in parliament.
In an election with little policy debate, Ms. Suu Kyi has soared to huge popularity on the strength of her long struggle against a military regime whose repression has not been forgotten by average citizens. In cities like Rangoon, people look to her as a saviour.
But the Nobel laureate faces tougher circumstances in rural areas, where ethnic parties are popular and the Thein Sein government has won favour through heavy spending.
In Surngen, a remote mountain village with 150 households in Chin State, Tluang Thawng, 50, said he voted for Mr. Thein Sein's USDP party because it had brought six hours of daily electricity to the area's subsistence corn and rice farmers.
"The work by the USDP has not been bad in the last five years," he said, speaking on the sole crackly phone line into the ridge-top community, which lies a full day's drive by car from the nearest market town. Besides, Ms. Suu Kyi "will not be president, so what's the point of voting for her?" he said.
But on the broad, fertile plains of the Ayeyarwady Delta, many voters bought into Ms. Suu Kyi's promises of a freer, more open democracy.
"I want a change in my country," said May Thinzar Cho, a garment factory worker who held up an ink-stained pinky to show she had voted for the first time in Pandaing, a village 40 kilometres west of Rangoon. Behind her, two dozen voters scuffled at the entrance to the polling station, yelling "It's our turn!"
In Toe Nayi, a village on the shores of the Yangon River accessible only by water during the rainy season, Daw Win Shwe said casting a ballot for Ms. Suu Kyi had left her "heart beating. I'm so excited."
"In 2010, we voted for the lion" – the ruling USDP – "but nothing changed. So to make a change, this year we voted for the star and peacock," she said.
Others weren't quite sure who they chose. "I don't really know how to vote. So I just stamped all the middle options," said U Mya Soe, who like many in Toe Nayi spent election day taking a break from work.
"The reason I went to vote is if a good person is elected, our country will be better. So I just did it. And I pray that my stamp was for a good guy."
In Rangoon, meanwhile, an unseasonable late afternoon rain prompted a search for symbolism.
"Some people say this means a washing away of bad things," said taxi driver Naing Lin Aung as he steered past a polling station where the voting had just ended.