Voters in Myanmar flocked to the polls on Sunday for elections expected to sweep opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament for the first time as part of dramatic political reforms.
A victory for Suu Kyi would cap a remarkable transformation for the 66-year-old icon of the pro-democracy movement, who spent most of the past 22 years locked up by the junta as a prisoner in her own home.
A crowd of supporters and journalists mobbed Suu Kyi as she visited a polling station in the rural constituency of Kawhmu where she is standing in the by-elections, as voters queued outside, some in traditional dress.
"I'll vote for Mother Suu because I love and cherish her," said 43-year-old labourer San San Win.
"We don't expect anything from her. We're really glad she came to our village," she added.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept to a landslide election victory in 1990 but the generals who ruled the country for decades until last year never recognised the result.
The NLD leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, was not a candidate herself on that occasion because she was under house arrest.
Her party is contesting 44 of the 45 seats at stake in Sunday's vote -- not enough to threaten the ruling party's majority, but a seat in parliament would give the opposition leader a chance to shape legislation for the first time.
Observers say the new quasi-civilian government wants the pro-democracy leader to win a place in parliament this time to burnish its reform credentials and smooth the way for an easing of Western sanctions.
Polling stations opened at 6:00 am (2330 GMT Saturday) and were due to close at 4:00 pm, with more than six million people eligible to vote. Official results are expected within about a week, according to the election commission.
A 2010 general election, won by the military's political proxies, was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and the exclusion of Suu Kyi, who was released from seven straight years of house arrest shortly afterwards.
In the run-up to this Sunday's by-elections, the NLD complained about irregularities, including alleged intimidation of candidates and the appearance of the names of some dead people on the electoral roll.
"I don't think we can consider it a genuinely free and fair election," Suu Kyi told a news conference on Friday.
She said the irregularities were "really beyond what is acceptable for a democratic election" but stopped short of announcing a boycott.
"We are determined to go forward because we think that this is what our people want," Suu Kyi said.
A gruelling schedule of rallies and speeches has taken its toll on the health of the opposition leader, who cancelled campaigning in the week before the vote after she fell ill and was put on a drip during a visit to the south.
NLD spokesman Nyan Win Saturday said that Suu Kyi was "fine" as she travelled to Kawhmu, about two hours' drive from Yangon, where small groups of jubilant supporters gathered to cheer her arrival.
"She is weak, but we do not need to worry," he said.
Unlike in 2010, the government has invited foreign observers and journalists to witness a vote seen as a major test of its reform credentials.
"This is a crucial moment in Myanmar's history," UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana said in a statement ahead of the vote.
"The flawed electoral process of the 2010 national elections, which failed to meet international standards, was a missed opportunity for Myanmar to address its challenges in democratisation. It should not be repeated as Myanmar enters a new and more open era," he added.
After almost half a century of iron-fisted military rule, the junta in March last year handed power to a new government led by President Thein Sein, one of a clutch of former generals who shed their uniforms to contest the 2010 election.
Since then, the reform-minded regime has surprised even its critics with a string of moves such as releasing hundreds of political prisoners and welcoming the NLD back into mainstream politics.
But the continued existence of political detainees, ongoing fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels and alleged human rights abuses remain major concerns for Western nations which have imposed sanctions on the regime.© ANP/AFP