She struggled for a free Myanmar for a quarter-century, much of it spent locked away under house arrest. Now, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose nonviolent campaign for democracy at home transformed her into a global icon is on the verge of ascending to public office for the first time.
Aung San Suu Kyi, 66, was elected to parliament Sunday in a historic victory buffeted by the jubilant cheers of supporters who hope her triumph will mark a major turning point in a nation still emerging from a ruthless era of military rule.
If confirmed, the election win will also mark an astonishing reversal of fortune for a woman who became one of the world's most prominent prisoners of conscience. When she was finally released in late 2010, just after a vote her party boycotted that was deemed neither free nor fair, few could have imagined she would make the leap from democracy advocate to elected official in less than 17 months, opening the way for a potential presidential run in 2015.
But Myanmar has changed dramatically over that time. The junta finally ceded power last year, and although many of its leaders merely swapped their military uniforms for civilian suits, they went on to stun even their staunchest critics by releasing political prisoners, signing cease-fires with rebels, relaxing press censorship and opening a direct dialogue with Suu Kyi -- who they tried to silence for decades.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton congratulated Myanmar for holding the election. Speaking at a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, she said Washington was committed to supporting the nation's reform effort.
"Even the most repressive regimes can reform, and even the most closed societies can open," she said.
On the street in Yangon where Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy maintains its crumbling headquarters, none of that seemed to matter Sunday. The party's foray into electoral politics was its first since 1990 -- when it won a landslide that was promptly annulled by the army.
"It's the people's victory! We've taught them a lesson!" said a shopkeeper who was among a crowd of thousands watching as a digital signboard repeatedly flashed news that Suu Kyi won the Kawhmu constituency south of Yangon.
The crowds swelled as night fell, blocking traffic on the road. Some chanted "We won! We won!" Others clapped, waved party flags and held their fingers aloft in V-for-victory signs. One official party message even told them not to gloat.
As results came in Sunday night from the poll watchers of Suu Kyi's party, spokesman and campaign manager Nyan Win projected the opposition would secure most of the vote, winning 40 of 45 parliamentary seats at stake. Those included four in the capital, Naypyitaw, considered a stronghold of the ruling party whose leaders helped build it. The opposition had contested 44 seats.
Sunday's lection was called to fill seats in Myanmar's 664-member bicameral assembly, and the military-backed government had little to lose by holding it. The last vote had been engineered in their favor -- the army was allotted 25 percent of the seats, and the ruling party won most of the rest.