WAH THIN KHA, Myanmar (AP) -- Myanmar held a landmark election Sunday that was expected to send democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament for her first public office since launching her decades-long struggle against the military-dominated government.
Sunday's by-election, to fill a few dozen vacant seats, followed months of surprising reforms by a nominally civilian government that does not relish ceding ground to Suu Kyi, but which must appear more democratic in order to emerge from decades of international isolation that have crippled the Southeast Asian nation's economy.
Suu Kyi's party and its opposition allies will have almost no sway even if they win all the seats they are contesting, because the 664-seat parliament will remain dominated by the military and the military-backed ruling party.
But when Suu Kyi takes office, it will symbolize a giant leap toward national reconciliation after nearly a quarter-century in which she spent most of her time under house arrest. It could also nudge Western powers closer to easing economic sanctions they have imposed on the country for years.
The 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate is vying to represent the constituency of Wah Thin Kha, one of dozens of dirt-poor villages south of the main city Yangon. She is running against the ruling party's Soe Win, a former army doctor.
Suu Kyi slept overnight in the tiny hamlet, where party supporters hooked up a homemade grid of generator-powered electric lights perched outside the home she stayed in. The village of 3,000 farmers has no electricity or running water, nor any paved roads, and its near-total underdevelopment illustrates the profound challenges facing the country as it slowly emerges from 49 years of army rule.
Last year, Myanmar's long-entrenched military junta handed power to a civilian government dominated by retired officers that skeptics decried as a proxy for continued military rule. But the new rulers -- who came to power in a 2010 vote that critics say was neither free nor fair -- have surprised the world with a wave of reform, prompted in part by a desire to get Western sanctions lifted and to come out from under the influence of its powerful neighbor, China.