DOZENS of people sat in the darkness, waiting patiently at the polling station gates. It was more than an hour before sunrise and the start of voting, but no one was complaining. After all, this was the first time in a quarter century that these people were getting to participate in openly-contested national elections.
“Do you think your vote will matter today?” I asked Zaw Win, a smiling 67-year old man who waved a victory sign as light began to break.
“Of course,” he beamed. “Now I vote for the party and for the person I like, so I am quite happy.”
Soon after, Win’s finger was stained blue with the ink election organizers were using to prevent people casting multiple votes. His smile encapsulated the optimism felt by so many taking part in Myanmar’s freest elections in decades. “Before, I was worried about the election. But it was very easy,” he said.
Critics had pointed to structural deficiencies in the ballot. Human rights groups warned of a rise in politically motivated arrests. They cited the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have been denied citizenship, as well as an Islamophobic campaign directed against the rest of the Muslim minority, led by a group of ultraconservative Buddhist monks. Questions had arisen over just how free and fair the count would turn out to be after so many years of anything but.
This time around, Myanmar’s president – himself a former military commander – had given his personal vow that results would be respected. Thousands of observers monitored the vote, from across the dozens of parties competing in the contest.
Of course, politics in Myanmar are synonymous with one woman. By Monday morning it appeared that the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the veteran democracy campaigner kept under house arrest for nearly two decades, was edging to power.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is barred from running for the post of president herself because her children have foreign passports. She had last week expressed concern about irregularities in advance voting, as well as fraud and intimidation.
But as the first official results trickled in, her National League for Democracy (NLD) quickly captured a commanding lead. By nightfall on Monday, there were jubilant scenes outside the party’s Yangon headquarters.
“We believe we can win,” Ayea Nyeian Thu, a medical doctor, told CNN at the rally, surrounded by NLD flag-waving supporters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Suu Kyi’s image. “We don’t want to see a military government any longer.”
As the night drew on, the ruling party conceded defeat.
Of course, the generals won’t be leaving politics any time soon. The system here continues to favor the military, which will appoint a quarter of all lawmakers in the two houses of parliament. And it could still take days before final election results will be announced.
But that did not stop opposition supporters from euphorically singing and dancing in the streets.
“This is no longer just in our dreams!” one NLD supporter cried.
On a steamy Yangon night, people dared to believe that their voices – so long brutally oppressed- were now finally being heard.
Ivan Watson is CNN’s senior international correspondent based in Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter @IvanCNN