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Carnival-like atmosphere in Myanmar ahead of election

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is poised to win a seat in parliament and join a government that's embracing reform, but still dominated by the military. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

YANGON, Myanmar – It was like carnival time in Mingalar Taung Nyung Township on Friday. A cavalcade of packed cars, mini-buses and trucks cruised the streets of this rundown Yangon suburb, music blaring, while the euphoric passengers sang, waved and danced.

"Aung San Suu Kyi!" they shouted, while bystanders cheered them on.

A group of monks raised their fists and shouted back: "Aung San Suu Kyi!"

Myanmar is preparing to go to the polls Sunday in only its third election in 50 years. Suu Kyi, the country’s pro-democracy leader, is running for one of 45 parliamentary seats.  

Images of Suu Kyi were everywhere – on t-shirts, posters, flags and red bandanas, together with a fighting peacock, the symbol of her party, the National League for Democracy.
  
Just one year ago, openly displaying these images could have quickly landed you in jail.

‘Will she win?’ I asked one man, who clearly thought it was one of the silliest questions he’d heard in some time. "100 percent certain," he said, his voice hoarse from all the shouting. "100 percent certain."

High stakes
Suu Kyi herself is being far more cautious about Sunday's vote, accusing her opponents of widespread intimidation.

Ian Williams / NBC News

A jeep decked out with special speakers to blare music helped whip up pre-election excitement in a suburb of Yangon, Myanmar on Friday.

"We hope the courage and resolution of the people will overcome the intimidation and irregularities that have been taking place," she said at a press conference early Friday.

She's not been out campaigning since she took ill earlier this week from fatigue and exhaustion. The 66-year-old looked stronger Friday and joked about her health: "I'm feeling a little delicate, so any tough questions and I'll faint straight away," she joked.

By most accounts the enthusiasm on the streets of Mingalar Taung Nyung has been repeated across the country, even though only 45 seats are being contested. That's only a fraction of the 659 seats in what will still be a military-dominated parliament, even if Suu Kyi’s party grabs all the seats it's contesting Sunday.

All the same, the stakes have never been higher. A clean election will mark another step towards the lifting of sanctions against Myanmar. And the mere fact Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, have returned to politics is seen in itself as a huge step forward - though only a first step.

Tough job for election observers
Myanmar has invited more than 150 international election observers to monitor the election, although one observer I met Friday said it was like nothing he'd ever seen before.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Young people participate in pre-eletion rallies in Mingalar Taung Nyung Township, a suburb of Yangon, Myanmar on Friday. They are wearing the colors of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party.

There has been no access to Myanmar's election commission or to electoral lists, and it’s not clear whether access will be grated to polling stations or vote counting. That makes their job very difficult.

"There could be massive fraud or no fraud – I’m not sure we'll be able to judge the difference," one observer said to me.
Devoid of their usual tools, their judgments will be impressionistic at best, though as one said to me: "The mere fact this is happening at all in Myanmar is a huge step."

Suu Kyi seems to share that view. Her accusations of irregularities are aimed primarily at local opponents, for whom old habits die hard. She's said many times that she does not doubt the sincerity of Myanmar's President Thein Sein, the former general who started the reform process last year with an easing of censorship and the release of political prisoners.

Many analysts believe it would rather suit hem to have Suu Kyi in parliament.

Ian Williams / NBC News

A bus decorated in the color's of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party rides through the streets of Mingalar Taung Nyung Township, a suburb of Yangon, Myanmar on Friday.

For her, there is a much bigger dynamic at work than the raw election numbers.

Genie out of the bottle
"It's the rising political awareness of our people that we regard as our greatest triumph," Suu Kyi said Friday.

Hardliners are certainly capable of pushing back such as in 1990 when the election victory by the National League for Democracy was simply overturned by the military.

However, this feels different. It was hard not to get caught up in all the emotion on the street today.
It seems like the start of something more enduring, a process that the military will likely find hard to turn off or turn around, even if they wanted to.