The Opposition Claims Victory as Burma Revels in the Freedom from Fear

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James Nachtwey for TIME

Supporters of the National League for Democracy, Burma's opposition party, cheer as the results of the by-elections are announced outside the party's headquarters on April 1, 2012

At party headquarters, it was the party to end all parties. For too long, the bumpy, betel-stained strip of pavement in front of the Rangoon office of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s opposition party, felt like a no-go zone. Burmese would walk quickly past, averting their gaze from the celllike confines of the political office within, where diehard supporters of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi persevered in their unlikely campaign to bring democracy to one of the world’s most oppressed nations. Across the street, at an outdoor tea shop, agents from the regime’s much feared Special Branch — with their trademark white oxford shirts, dark sarongs and sunglasses — stalked with telephoto lenses those who dared to enter the NLD headquarters.

But on April 1, after a milestone by-election that marked only Burma’s third poll in half a century, the pavement in front of NLD, as well as the normally busy road in front, was teeming with hundreds of party supporters to celebrate what the opposition was calling a landslide victory. Only 45 parliamentary seats were being contested out of 664 total. But this was the first time that the NLD was running since Burma’s military regime ignored its previous overwhelming poll triumph in the 1990 general elections. (Another election in 2010, which ushered in a quasi-civilian government that took office last year, was boycotted by the NLD because the party rightly believed the vote would be neither free nor fair.) As a giant screen placed precariously on the NLD headquarters’ roof flashed initial, unofficial results from local election offices, the crowd roared with each victory. By 10 in the evening, members of the NLD were claiming 40 of the 44 seats the party contested, including a win by Suu Kyi herself.

(PHOTOS: Freedom for Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi)

The 2012 by-elections — even though they will barely give the NLD any legislative ammunition against the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — marked a potential turning point in modern Burmese history. As Suu Kyi, the eloquent opposition figure, asserted in her seminal 1990 speech, the greatest liberty is the freedom from fear. On April 1, in the muggy heat of a Rangoon night, Burmese finally claimed their freedom from fear.

In a country where simply displaying the NLD’s logo could earn a jail sentence a year ago, the scene in front of the NLD headquarters played like a surreal panorama. Teenagers with bleached hair danced to a country-western anthem praising the 66-year-old Suu Kyi. Monks fanned themselves and beamed. Families took along their children, who were swathed in the NLD’s flag, a red banner with a white star and golden peacock. The campaign season was full of similar raucous expressions of support for the NLD. But this affirmation of the people’s will, of their bravery in ticking the box for a once banned party felt like a tipping point in Burma’s bloody political history.

(MORE: Burma Holds Out the Promise of Reform, but Change Will Take Time)

What will happen next in the country officially known as Myanmar? Are the retired generals who helm the country shocked by the NLD’s overwhelming victory? After all, there were numerous claims of voter irregularities during election day; perhaps an attempt to diminish the NLD’s triumph through shadowy means had gone awry. One diplomat surveying the scene at the Rangoon NLD office said he had heard that those in power weren’t answering their phones. For the USDP, which also tried its hand at modern-style campaigning, such a resounding loss must be humiliating. A parliamentary majority, backed by the one-quarter of the legislature reserved for active military members, may be secure. But the loss of face is huge.

Could the electoral results catalyze a backlash from hard-liners who have watched with unease President Thein Sein’s surprising reforms — from the release of political prisoners and loosening media restrictions to allowing Suu Kyi and her party to contest the by-elections? And given that official results may not be released for up to a week, might there be an alarming discrepancy between what was reported today and what the government will sign off on in coming days? How likely is it that the world’s most beloved opposition leader will be an effective legislator, despite all the adoration she generates? Any number of troubling scenarios could well play out. But for tonight, as the electoral results rolled in from all over Burma — from Rangoon, Mandalay, even the junta’s new bunkered capital of Naypyidaw — it was a time not for speculation but celebration.

PHOTOS: Burma’s Slowly Shifting Landscape

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