Aung San Suu Kyi’s Path to Victory by James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey for TIME
James Nachtwey for TIME
April 1, 2012. Waiting expectantly for the vote count at NLD headquarters, a supporter holds a party flag, emblazoned with the party symbol of the "Fighting Peacock."

Aung San Suu Kyi, once a prisoner, is now a parliamentarian. On April 1, the Nobel Laureate led the National League for Democracy to victory in by-elections hailed as a landmark for Burma. For five decades, the former British colony has languished under military rule, caught in the clutch of a small group of cadres. This was just the third poll since they seized power in 1962 and the first that might plausibly be called free or fair. Suu Kyi’s party swept it, claiming 43 of 44 seats.

For Suu Kyi, who spent much of the last 20 years under house arrest, the win was a stunning reversal. For her followers, it was a revelation. On the streets of Rangoon last week, the joy and relief were palpable. Supporters piled into pickup trucks, honked horns and cheered. A year ago, you could be arrested for clutching a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi. Now, people wave her picture proudly.

James Nachtwey’s photographs from the campaign trail capture this rapturous moment, but hint, too, at challenges to come. Though voters handed a clear victory to the opposition NLD, just a small portion of parliamentary seats were at stake and reports of electoral infractions abound. The military maintains its grip on power. Poverty persists. After 50 years of authoritarian rule, it no doubt will take time for the country to find its footing. For Suu Kyi, and for Burma, there is a long road ahead.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer. Keep up with his work on his Facebook page.

Emily Rauhala is an Associate Editor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @emilyrauhala

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