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Myanmar's election on Sunday: Why It Matters

Associated Press Modified: March 30, 2012 at 3:15 am •  Published: March 30, 2012

BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar's special election Sunday is for a small portion of parliament seats, but has taken on immense symbolic importance because it will likely see pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi win her first term in office.

The elections represent a key step for national reconciliation after more than two decades of bitter struggle which set the ruling military against a pro-democracy movement led by Suu Kyi and which turned Myanmar into a shunned, pariah state with stunted development.

Though the seats up for grabs are relatively few, the stakes are high for both the military-backed government, which wants to emerge from international isolation, and for Suu Kyi's camp, which wants real democracy. The vote also sets the stage for an even more important election in 2015.

Here's a look at Sunday's polling, the players and what's at stake:


Candidates are vying for 45 seats in the 664-seat parliament that have been vacated since 2010 general elections, which were boycotted by Suu Kyi's party. The government has invited a limited number of international observers to observe the latest polling, hoping to boost its democratic credentials. Suu Kyi, running in an impoverished district south of Yangon, has alleged widespread irregularities in the run-up, but has vowed to go forward with her candidacy.


The country's former military rulers — known for violently suppressing any uprisings — nullified a 1990 election victory by Suu Kyi and kept her under house arrest for much of the following decades. They engineered the 2010 elections to usher in a nominally civilian governement while ensuring that the military retained power, for example, by reserving at least a quarter of parliament seats for the military. Foreign observers were barred from that vote; a military-backed party won.

Now firmly entrenched, the country's rulers have a strong interest in promoting a more democratic stance, to placate international critics. The government hopes to earn a lifting of economic and political sanctions by the U.S. and other Western nations, so that Myanmar can enjoy the benefits of the global economy.

It can afford to allow Suu Kyi's followers to win seats in the parliament, because those up for grabs amount to less than 7 percent of the legislature, and wants Sunday's vote to appear to go as smoothly as possible.

The government of President Thein Sein has launched a series of reforms — the freeing of political prisoners, the opening of a dialogue with Suu Kyi. Washington has promised to upgrade diplomatic relations, but wants to see free and fair elections before it grants further rewards.

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