Pro-democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi called her party's apparent victory in Myanmar's parliamentary by-elections Sunday a "triumph of the people" and said she would begin working soon to build bridges with other parties to help bring reconciliation to the long-suffering Southeast Asian nation.
Speaking to a crowd of a thousand or more people outside her National League for Democracy party headquarters on Monday, Ms. Suu Kyi said she hoped the victory—and the process of voting in a democratic election—would mark the "beginning of a new era" for the country, which was controlled for five decades by a harsh military regime.
Citing their own poll monitors, NLD officials said Monday that the party's candidates won at least 43 of the 44 seats it contested in Sunday's vote—out of a total of 45 at stake—including the one Ms. Suu Kyi sought in a constituency south of Yangon.
The government has not confirmed those results. Official tallies are expected this week.
Ms. Suu Kyi also appeared to be toning down her recent criticism of Myanmar's government, at least for now, despite reports of sporadic irregularities in Sunday's vote. Those reports included allegations that some ballots were defaced with wax, making it impossible for voters to check boxes for NLD candidates. Efforts to reach the government for comment have been unsuccessful.
Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, speaking to reporters in Phnom Penh ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, called the elections "free, fair and transparent," according to the Associated Press. Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said poll observers reported a high turnout, while Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the voting will further ensure recent reforms will be "irreversible," the AP reported.
Ms. Suu Kyi said the NLD would present a list of the irregularities to the government, "not in any spirit of vengeance or anger but because we do not think that such practices should be encouraged in any way" The NLD would do so "only with the intention of making sure things improve in the future," she said.
A few days earlier Ms. Suu Kyi had told reporters she didn't think the vote could be viewed as free and fair given a string of campaign problems, including reports of voter intimidation.
Western leaders are watching Ms. Suu Kyi's actions carefully for guidance on whether they should lift key economic sanctions against Myanmar in the weeks and months ahead. If the government confirms the NLD's results—and Ms. Suu Kyi continues to make positive comments about the outcome—it will greatly increase the odds sanctions are lifted, analysts say.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr Monday called the election a substantial step forward.
"We're disposed to ease sanctions once the elections we've seen are ticked off as having been genuine," he told reporters. He cautioned that Myanmar, with repressive laws still on the books and thousands of political prisoners still in custody, has a long way to go. "Our consideration of easing sanctions will be proportionate," he said, and will only occur after talks with other Southeast Asian nations, the U.S. and Europe.
Ms. Suu Kyi's participation in the vote Sunday and her appearance on Monday were emotional moments for many people in Myanmar, who watched her endure most of the past 20 years under house arrest for challenging military rule. Her party easily won the country's last fully free election in 1990, but the country's military junta ignored the results and kept Ms. Suu Kyi largely locked away in her crumbling lakeside villa in Yangon.
The NLD boycotted the next major vote, in 2010, which transferred power from Myanmar's military junta to a nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein, a former military officer. Western leaders said the election was riddled with fraud.
Since then, Mr. Thein Sein's government has launched a series of unexpected reforms, loosening restraints on the media, freeing political prisoners and taking steps to open the economy more to the outside world. But while Myanmar residents are largely hopeful about the process, some worry the government still doesn't intend to allow fully free and fair democracy or a truly empowered opposition.
Even if the NLD's vote returns are confirmed by the government, the party would still hold only a very small portion of the seats in a parliament that has more than 600.
But Ms. Suu Kyi said the number of seats matters less than that the will of the people was being expressed by the election and that democratic ideas were taking root.
The vote "is not so much our triumph as a triumph of the people who have decided that they have to be involved in the political process in this country," she said.
Ms. Suu Kyi said she hoped that other parties would be willing to work with her to pursue reconciliation in the country, which has some of the lowest incomes and health standards in Asia after years of disastrous economic policies.
After her brief appearance, which lasted about five minutes, she retreated back into her party headquarters for meetings, and a local honky tonk tune cranked up on the headquarters' loudspeakers as supporters clapped.