Yangon: With tremendous excitement and hope, millions of citizens today voted in Myanmar's historic general elections that will test whether the military's longstanding grip on power can be loosened, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party expected to secure an easy victory.
In a country that was under military rule for almost a half-century, many of the eligible 30 million voters were voting for the first time in what's been billed as the freest election ever. It was the first time even for Suu Kyi, the epitome of the democracy movement who defied the junta for decades.
Wearing her trademark thazin flowers in her hair, a smiling Suu Kyi arrived at the polling station near her lake- side residence where she was mobbed by hundreds of journalists. She quickly cast her vote and left without speaking to reporters.
People had lined up in Buddhist temples, schools and government buildings since early morning to vote. Election monitors called it "a remarkable day" full of excitement and energy.
"This is very, very significant... It's the first time that most people in the country will have an opportunity to vote for the main opposition party," said Richard Horsey, an independent Myanmar analyst.
Although more than 90 parties are contesting, the main fight is between Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, and the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party, made up largely of former junta members. A host of other parties from ethnic minorities, who form 40 percent of the country's 52 million people, are also running.
"I am so excited to come to vote. I couldn't sleep the whole night, so I came here early," said Ohnmar, a 38 year-old woman who goes by one name. "I came to vote because I want change in my country. I think Aung San Suu Kyi will win if this is a real free and fair election."
Certainly though, the election will not bring full democracy to this nation, which spent nearly five decades under brutal military rule and the last five years under a quasi-civilian government. Myanmar's constitution guarantees 25 per cent of seats in Parliament to the military, and was rewritten to keep Suu Kyi, the country's most popular politician, from the presidency.
This time, however, there is hope that the election will move Myanmar a step closer to democracy.
After taking power in 1962, the junta first allowed elections in 1990, which Suu Kyi's party won overwhelmingly. A shocked army refused to seat the winning lawmakers, with the excuse that a new constitution first had to be implemented - a task that ended up taking 18 years and intense international pressure. It finally held new elections in 2010, which the opposition boycotted, citing unfair election laws.