WAH THIN KHA, Myanmar (AP) — This nation's former military rulers once despised Aung San Suu Kyi so much they would not speak her name.
They vowed to "annihilate" her pro-democracy movement. They jailed and tortured her supporters. They locked the soft-spoken dissident in her own home for the better part of two decades, declaring her political career over.
But after an era tenaciously spent trying to silence their most prominent critic, Myanmar's military-backed leaders are now on the verge of an extraordinary turnaround — welcoming her into parliament.
On Sunday, this tiny village of thatched bamboo huts is expected to help vote the frail but intensely stalwart opposition leader into public office for the first time, raising the prospect she could win the presidency itself during the next ballot in 2015.
The by-election, held to fill just 45 vacant legislative seats in a 664-member bicameral assembly, will not change the balance of power in a country still heavily controlled by a deeply feared military. But Suu Kyi's campaign — made possible by a fragile detente with a government that's embarked on a stunning series of democratic reforms over the last few months — has galvanized Myanmar's downtrodden masses and resurrected hope.
In Wah Thin Kha, one of dozens of dirt-poor villages south of the main city Yangon that the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate is vying to represent, the only clinic for 3,000 souls is abandoned, its walls cracked, its shelves empty of vital medicines.
"She can change everything," said Kyaw Win Sein, standing in a sea of green and yellow rice fields that swayed silently in the wind.
After 49 years at the helm, Myanmar's entrenched junta finally ceded power last year to a civilian government dominated by retired officers that skeptics decried as a proxy for continued army rule. But the new rulers — who came to power in a 2010 vote that critics say was neither free nor fair — have surprised the world with a bewildering wave of reform, prompted in part by a desire to get Western sanctions lifted and emerge from the influence of its powerful neighbor, China, after years of isolation from the world stage.
Led by President Thein Sein, himself a retired lieutenant general who was previously the junta's prime minister, they have freed political prisoners, signed truces with rebel groups, and opened a direct dialogue with Suu Kyi, whose image was taboo only a year ago but is now openly plastered just about everywhere —on newspapers, T-shirts, and now campaign banners nationwide.
Sunday's poll will mark the first foray into electoral politics by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party since winning a landslide election victory in 1990 that was annulled by the army. The party boycotted the last vote in 2010, but in January the government amended key electoral laws, paving the way for a run in this weekend's ballot.
This time around, Western powers are watching closely. If all goes well, Europe and the United States could begin relaxing stiff economic sanctions that have crippled investment and development.
During a news conference Friday, though, Suu Kyi cast serious doubt over the ballot's fairness, saying it could not be called free or fair because of irregularities during the campaign. She said there were "many, many cases of intimidation." Her party says electoral officials have illegally canvassed for the ruling party. Opposition posters have been vandalized, while some voter lists lack eligible voters yet include the names of the dead.
Still, Suu Kyi said, "we are determined to go forward because we think this is what our people want."
Electoral shortcomings aside, Suu Kyi is nevertheless almost certain of victory. And the chance to contest the military-backed government on democratic terms is something "she's been waiting for after two decades of long struggle and brutally thwarted aspirations," said David Mathieson, a veteran Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch who is based in Thailand.
But "the by-elections are just an entry-pass into formal politics," Mathieson said. "What she does with it in the years leading up to 2015 will be the real test."
Suu Kyi's decision to participate in the poll is a great political gamble. Once in parliament, she can challenge the government from within and influence official policy. But she also risks strengthening a regime she has fought against for decades that has little to lose by allowing her to become a legislator. Only 45 of the bi-cameral assembly's 664 seats are up for grabs, and 80 percent of them are already controlled by the military-backed ruling party and the army itself, giving the regime veto power over all legislation.
What President Thein Sein's government achieves through the vote, though, "may be enormous," said Aung Din, director of the U.S.-based Campaign for Burma and himself a former political prisoner.
"Their political system will be recognized by the international community as ... legitimate," he said, setting the stage for a relaxation of sanctions which would further strengthen the government.
But with her foot in the door, Suu Kyi may be also be able to close the divide between hard-liners who still oppose her and those genuinely supporting reform. "Those who want to put the country back in the dark will see strong and powerful resistance from the public, who will not allow anyone to take away their newly found freedom," Aung Din said.
In 1991, the same year Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the nation's non-violent democratic struggle, one European ambassador said the nation's top military brass would not even say her name, speaking about her only as "the person you are referring to." Five years later, in 1996, one junta general, Maung Aye, threatened to "annihilate" Suu Kyi and her movement, a vow he reiterated for years.
The military's constant repression, though, transformed Suu Kyi into a world icon, a petite, Oxford-educated mother of two whose struggle against dictatorial generals at the helm of a 400,000-strong army has been lauded around the globe.
The country of 54 million people, formerly known as Burma, is anxious for change.
Human rights groups say the army is still committing widespread atrocities as it battles insurgents, subjecting civilians to forced labor, raping women, razing homes and obstructing international aid from reaching the displaced.
And while much of the rest of skyscraper-rich Asia has advanced dramatically over the last few decades, Myanmar has nose-dived from one of the region's most prosperous nations to one of its poorest. Villages like Wah Thin Kha, where Suu Kyi plans to spend the night and rise Sunday to observe voting, have barely changed in centuries.
Here — like vast tracts of the nation — there is no electricity, no running water. There are no paved roads. The sick must make a one-hour boat ride upriver to the nearest hospital if they want medical care. Children older than 10 must go elsewhere if they want an education. Some thatched huts do have TV sets — villagers watch Korean soap operas on black and white screens powered off used car batteries.
Suu Kyi said Friday that regardless of the vote's outcome, her party's aim remained the same: To help people "free themselves form the fear and indifference in which they have been sunk."