YANGON, Myanmar -- She struggled for a free Myanmar for a quarter-century, much of it spent locked away under house arrest. Now, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose nonviolent campaign for democracy at home transformed her into a global icon is on the verge of ascending to public office for the first time.

Aung San Suu Kyi, 66, was elected to parliament yesterday in a historic victory buffeted by the jubilant cheers of supporters who hope her triumph will mark a major turning point in a nation still emerging from a ruthless era of military rule.

If confirmed, the election will mark an astonishing reversal of fortune for a woman who became one of the world's most prominent prisoners of conscience.

When she was finally released in late 2010, just after a vote her party boycotted that was deemed neither free nor fair, few could have imagined she would make the leap from democracy advocate to elected official in less than 17 months, opening the way for a potential presidential run in 2015.

But Myanmar has changed dramatically. The junta ceded power last year, and although many of its leaders merely swapped their military uniforms for civilian suits, they went on to stun even their staunchest critics by releasing political prisoners, signing cease-fires with rebels, relaxing press censorship and opening a direct dialogue with Suu Kyi, whom they had tried to silence for decades.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton congratulated Myanmar at a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey. She said Washington was committed to supporting the nation's reform effort. "Even the most repressive regimes can reform, and even the most closed societies can open," she said.

The top-down revolution has left Myanmar befuddled and wondering how it happened. One theory says the military-backed regime had long been desperate for legitimacy and a lifting of Western sanctions, and its leadership had quietly recognized that their impoverished country, formerly known as Burma, had fallen far behind the rest of skyscraper-rich Asia.

On the street in Yangon, none of that seemed to matter yesterday. "It's the people's victory! We've taught them a lesson!" said a shopkeeper. The crowds swelled as night fell, some chanting "We won! We won!"

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