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Myanmar begins historic vote

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Sat March 31, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Aung San Suu Kyi visits polling station
  • Nobel Prize winner is expected to win a seat
  • There are 45 seats up for grabs in the 664-seat legislature
  • The country has experienced enormous change in the last year

(CNN) -- Voters in Myanmar went to the polls Sunday in a historic election, the first time credible alternatives to the ruling party have appeared on the country's ballot.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who symbolizes the fight for democracy in the Asian nation, was one of the candidates competing for 45 parliamentary vacancies created by the promotion of lawmakers to the Cabinet and other posts last year.

Released in 2010 by Myanmar's military rulers after years under house arrest, Suu Kyi has been traveling up and down the country, rallying support for her once-banned National League for Democracy party.

Followed by hundreds of people in Wathinkha, Suu Kyi visited a polling station, where she spoke with election monitors and voters. Suu Kyi was planning to make other stops around the country.

Polls opened at 6 a.m. Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday), and were set to close eight hours later. Voters will weigh in during a time of enormous change in Myanmar, also known as Burma, which has been secluded and ruled by a military junta for decades.

In the past 12 months, the country has pardoned hundreds of political prisoners, secured a cease-fire with Karen rebels and has agreed to negotiate with other ethnic rebel groups. Freer press rules have encouraged the proliferation of journals and magazines.

Myanmar's efforts to thaw its frosty relations with the rest of the world have been warmly welcomed and rewarded. In recent months, a steady procession of foreign ministers has visited the country and, in February, the EU lifted a travel ban on Myanmar officials.

There have been hints, too, that the a free and fair vote on Sunday will lead to the relatively swift unraveling of sanctions that have long choked the country's economy.

Unlike the 2010 general election, international observers have been invited to monitor the vote. The United States, the European Union and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are sending monitors, as are Japan, Canada and Australia.

Analysts say the election will be the first real test of the government's commitment to removing the fear and paranoia of citizens silenced by nearly five decades of military rule. After attracting international condemnation for manipulating the voting process two years ago, Myanmar's leaders know that a fair election will be proof to the world that it can conduct a legitimate vote.

Thousands of Burmese living in exile around the world are watching the election for a clear sign that it is safe to return home. Young voters in Myanmar appeared to be particularly excited about the polling.

The vote will not tip the balance in Myanmar's Legislature, which has 664 members according to ElectionGuide.org. And analysts say that the sheer number and spread of polling booths across the country will make it impossible for international monitors to ensure an honest count.

Suu Kyi said she believes voting irregularities, illegal activities and intimidation have been encouraged by official entities.

But she doesn't "regret having taken part" in the election campaign because it has raised political awareness among Myanmar's population. Suu Kyi is expected to win her seat in Kawhmu, south of Yangon.

The daughter of Gen. Aung San, a hero of Burmese independence, the 66-year-old Suu Kyi herself became an inspiration with her long struggle for democracy in the country.

As a member of parliament, Suu Kyi would also be expected to be free to travel outside Myanmar -- and more importantly to return -- something that wasn't possible during her long years of repression and confinement.

She told hundreds of journalists gathered outside her residence Friday that she didn't plan on becoming a minister in the military-backed civilian government, if a position was offered to her. Under Myanmar's constitution, lawmakers can't hold ministerial office.

Asked where she would place Myanmar's democracy on a scale of one to 10, Suu Kyi said, "We're trying to get to one."

CNN's Paul Hancocks and Kocha Olarn contributed to this report.

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