2012 is a historic year for Myanmar. Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and international icon of democracy, has won a seat in Myanmar's parliament after a by-election that marks a turning point for the country's military government. For two decades, it placed Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest and suppressed the pro-democracy movement. Its Asean neighbours are now urging the international community to lift sanctions introduced to punish the regime for this, but whether it will continue down the path to greater democracy remains unclear.

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The Military

For decades, Myanmar - also known as Burma - was controlled by a military junta who ran the country with little regard for democracy or human rights. Since 1962, Burma was ruled by the totalitarian Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) which has turned Burma into one of the world's most impoverished nations. In 1988, the People Power Uprising (otherwise known as the 8888 uprising) saw the BSPP toppled, and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) siezing power. The new military junta declared martial law (military law) soon after.

It held national elections in 1990 but even though Ms Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy party won a landslide victory, the generals refused to recognise the result. At the time, she had been placed under house arrest and disqualified from standing as a candidate.

In the meantime, the regime continued to violently crackdown on any opposition to its rule. The regime became an outcast in the international community, with some countries introducing sanctions - such as stopping trade with Myanmar - to show their disapproval. These economic and political sanctions have hurt Myanmar and eventually prompted the generals to begin making some changes.

Now firmly entrenched, the country's rulers have a strong interest in promoting a more democratic stance, to placate international critics. The government hopes to earn a lifting of economic and political sanctions by the US and other Western nations, so that Myanmar can enjoy the benefits of the global economy.

In 2010, they engineered elections that would be won by a civilian (non-military) party that they controlled, hoping this would appease the demand for greater democracy. But Ms Suu Kyi and her party refused to take part and that forced them to make more concessions, including opening up a dialogue with her and freeing some political prisoners.

This year, the regime decided to hold a by-election for 45 seats in the 664-seat parliament, and unlike in 2010, invited a few international monitors to observe the polls, hoping this would further boost its democratic credentials and earn a lifting of sanctions so that Myanmar can finally enjoy the benefits of the global economy.

Ms Suu Kyi's NLD won the elections by a landslide again, winning 43 of the 44 seats it contested.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi was born on June 19, 1945 as the daughter of national leader General Aung San (assassinated July 19, 1947) and Daw Khin Kyi. She was educated in Rangoon, Burma until she was 15 years old. In 1960 she accompanied her mother to Delhi, India on her appointment as Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal. Kyi studied politics at Delhi University. She earned a BA in philosophy, politics and economics from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. She worked abroad for the next several years during which time she was married to Dr. Michael Aris and had two children.

In 1988, while visiting Burma to take care of her sick mother, Aung San Suu Kyi joined the pro-democracy movement which was pressing for political reforms in Burma. On August 26, she addressed a half-million mass rally in front of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and called for a democratic government. In 1990, her party won a landslide election victory which was not recognised by the military junta. Ms Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for much of the two decades that followed, but, in the process, became an inspiring symbol of peaceful resistance to tyranny. Because of this, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, with the Nobel committee chairman calling her "an oustanding example of the power of the powerless".

Ms Suu Kyi and her political party came out of the 2010 election with poor prospects because of its boycott. Two decades of struggle against fierce repression had given the party the moral high ground but drained its energy. Then, Ms Suu Kyi was finally freed from house arrest, rejuvenating her pro-democracy movement while she herself - in her mid-60s - has shown signs of fatigue in campaign appearances that have drawn large, enthusiastic crowds.

Ms Suu Kyi was supposedly loathed by the former military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, who stepped down after the 2010 elections. But she says she trusts Mr Thein Sein and his promise of a kinder, gentler Myanmar.

In early April this year, Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party declared that the Nobel laureate had secured a seat in parliament for the first time in the March by-elections.

The Future

The election results has taken on a huge symbolic importance for those who want democracy in Myanmar, and it sets the tone for the even more important 2015 election. This is critical for the military-backed regime which hopes to emerge from international isolation.

Both sides are playing for future benefits, but the path seems clearer for the military: Provide enough democracy to keep Ms Suu Kyi in line and satisfy Western nations so that they drop their sanctions, and use the anticipated inflows of investment to jump-start the economy.

Critics fear that Ms Suu Kyi could become marginalised or co-opted in parliament. But if her party plays by the government's rules, it could provide the party's long-suffering organisers the kind of breathing space they never before enjoyed.

Ms Suu Kyi has said repeatedly that the party will work outside the legislature as well as inside. Many of the country's best-known pro-democracy activists, released from prison under Mr Thein Sein's amnesties and unbowed by their incarceration, have vowed their support for Ms Suu Kyi.

If the party can rebuild itself, it can mount a campaign for a general election in 2015 that could pose a real challenge to military-backed rule. Whether the military allows a victory by Ms Suu Kyi and her supporters in that vote - or squashes the result, as it did in 1990 - will be the true test of its commitment to democracy.

Myanmar's New Dawn, The Straits Times April 9th edition of IN