RANGOON, Burma — Burmese democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi all but completed her transformation from imprisoned icon to elected member of parliament Sunday as her party claimed it had won a resounding victory in an election considered a key test of political reforms in Burma.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s allies said she had soundly defeated her opponent from the ruling party, recording wins at all but one of 128 polling stations in her rural constituency near this Southeast Asian nation’s former capital, Rangoon. With results still coming in Sunday evening, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party projected it would claim 40 of 45 seats being contested across Burma. The country’s election commission is expected to confirm the much-anticipated results in the coming days.
In Washington, the White House on Monday congratulated “the people of Burma on their participation in the electoral process, and Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy on their strong showing in the polls.” Press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement: “This election is an important step in Burma’s democratic transformation, and we hope it is an indication that the government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency and reform.”
While the result leaves the NLD with only a small fraction of the 664 seats in the Burmese parliament, the vote was the most dramatic gesture yet in the government’s sudden turn toward reform after decades of unyielding oppression. Since becoming president of Burma one year ago, the former general Thein Sein has freed political prisoners and signed cease-fire agreements with rebel ethnic groups.
The moves are believed to be aimed at winning concessions from the West, which has long tried to isolate Burma in hopes of forcing the government to loosen its grip. In January, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the United States would send an ambassador to Burma for the first time in more than two decades.
The U.S. government had identified Sunday’s poll as a critical measure of Burma’s progress, suggesting that it may begin to dismantle a raft of economic sanctions against the nominally civilian regime. That is widely expected to happen in stages, as Washington seeks to maximize its leverage.
Clinton, who made a landmark visit to Burma at the end of last year in what was seen as a reward for Thein Sein’s reforms, gave a cautious reaction to the vote Sunday. “We are following elections with great interest. With the results not yet announced, the United States congratulates the people who participated, many for the first time,” she said.
“Going forward, it will be critical for authorities to continue working toward a system that includes transparency.”
Sunday’s vote represented a further softening of a long-running standoff between the regime and Suu Kyi. After her party won elections in 1990, she spent 15 years out of the next two decades under house arrest before being freed less than a week after a rigged election in November 2010.