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Ei Ei Pyone, 34, is a lower house candidate for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Maubin, a township west of Rangoon.

Nathan VanderKlipp/The Globe and Mail

On Sunday, voters in Myanmar will grab rubber stamps and press them onto slips of paper, being careful to let the ink dry before folding them, lest they spoil a ballot they have waited years to mark. More than 1,000 foreign observers and hundreds more foreign media will watch them, eager to witness change in a country that has proven spellbinding to the world outside.

But why does anybody care?

Myanmar's population of 51.5-million places it among the smaller Asian nations, and its economy is less than a fifth that of Malaysia, a country with half as many people. Myanmar is in the bottom third of world countries by life expectancy, and millions of its people cannot read or write. It is a foreign investment backwater, yet to build a McDonald's (the first KFC opened recently), and ranked 156 out of 175 countries on the Transparency International index of perceived corruption.

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You have to search hard to find a middle class with wallets big enough for Western consumer goods.

"If you take a cold, hard look at the numbers, maybe the story isn't why do we care. Maybe the story is that our interests are overblown," said Joshua Brown, the Myanmar country manager for Tractus, a strategic consulting firm. "Because it's pretty inconsequential."

Mr. Brown advises companies on Myanmar. Often, he suggests "the minimal amount of investment possible," at least until the electricity is predictable and the 70-year-old regulations have been rewritten for the modern world.

What Myanmar lacks in economic prowess, though, it makes up for in drama, a vivid tale unspooling on a landscape turned into fable by Western writers: an enchanted place of green hills and golden pagodas that descended into deep shadow before suddenly flourishing back into the light. "The story itself is almost theatrical," said Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific head for the International Commission of Jurists.

Those watching Sunday's vote, in other words, are doing so in part because they have been captivated by the narrative of a nation that fought off its colonial masters only to retreat into autocratic rule and then, suddenly, take up democratic reforms – propelled by the very men in uniform who once presided over its blackest days.

Facing off against them: Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman with a flower in her hair and unbending iron in her spine, a striking juxtaposition to the generals she long stood against – "almost a beauty against the beast," said Mark Canning, the former British ambassador to Myanmar who is now a senior adviser to communications firm Bell Pottinger.

"Were it not for the compelling struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi, this might well be just a backwater like Equatorial Guinea," Mr. Canning said. "Look at the human rights abuses in Eritrea. They're as bad as anything that has been produced in Myanmar, and yet no one could tell you where it was on a map."

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Ms. Suu Kyi went from house arrest to the threshold of a major election with astonishing speed. It was only in 2011 that journalists donned disguises in hopes of sneaking past authorities to speak with the Nobel laureate, who was kept locked up at home for many years by a military leadership that silenced dissent with a heavy fist.

For this election, the Ministry of Information issued invitation letters to interested foreign correspondents in a day. On the streets of Rangoon, the fighting peacock logo of Ms. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy now openly adorns thousands of rickshaws, and her rallies have drawn tens of thousands of people chanting a mantra of change. The former generals, too, are stumping door to door.

But the story's arc long predates the current campaign, reaching to the closing days of British colonial rule, when the nation then known as Burma was among Asia's wealthiest and best-educated, the region's biggest exporter of rice and a major crossroads for international travel.

Mr. Zarifi calls it "a country that should be a lot better than it was, and the world has seen it sink in slow, painful stages."

Just as important, "we saw the people fight back," he said, in a nation with a long hold on the Western imagination, dating to the British fascination with one of its more exotic colonial subjects.

George Orwell mythologized the Burmese beauty: "Her skin was gold, her hair was jet, her teeth were ivory; I said, 'For twenty silver pieces, Maiden, sleep with me.'" Rudyard Kipling took on its Buddhism-steeped landscape, writing of Rangoon's glimmering Shwedagon Pagoda, "The golden dome said, 'This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.'"

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The country's modern icons, meanwhile, offer the familiarity of being interwoven with Western thought.

Aung San, who was assassinated soon after helping win Burmese independence, called Abraham Lincoln a personal hero. His Oxford-educated daughter, Ms. Suu Kyi, cited Kipling's poetry as an inspiration to dissidents, named a son after one of the author's books and passed her long solitude under house arrest listening to the BBC. Thant Myint-U, the historian who is among the country's most-respected thinkers, is the grandson of U Thant, the third secretary-general of the United Nations.

Myanmar's generals, meanwhile, faced with an encroaching China and its temptations of wealth and autocracy, decided to run in the politically opposite direction, holding elections and further endearing the country to the West. Hillary Clinton devotes a chapter to Myanmar in Hard Choices, her memoir. David Cameron himself authorized British diplomat Joseph Fisher to work for Ms. Suu Kyi. Canada has held the country up as a place that proves sanctions work.

Myanmar "matters to the region as an important strategic place," said Jason Carter, incoming chairman of the human rights-focused Carter Center, and grandson of the former president who founded it. "This area of the world is becoming one of the great economic centres," and as Myanmar "moves toward a full democracy, it's going to have an impact."

That may one day be true – although the country remains for the foreseeable future in the grip of a military with a constitutional lock on a quarter of the seats in the legislature.

What is already true today, however, is that Myanmar is home to a person uniquely able to draw the world's attention, in part by making the powerful swoon. Former Canadian foreign affairs minister John Baird met Ms. Suu Kyi twice, and helped oversee a swift pivot where Canada suddenly dropped punitive sanctions, opened an embassy in Rangoon and made the country a priority for aid spending.

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She left the well-travelled Mr. Baird in awe; in an interview, he ranked her alongside Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela and the Aga Khan. "Only a few times in life do you really get the sense you're in the presence of greatness," he said.

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