By Aung Hla Tun and Andrew R.C. Marshall
YANGON (Reuters) - Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi claimed on Monday a by-election landslide for her party, which she hoped would mark the beginning of a new era for Myanmar after a historic vote that could prompt the West to end sanctions.
The charismatic Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the struggle against military rule in the former Burma for two decades, was one of 44 candidates her National League for Democracy Party (NLD) said won all but one of the legislative seats being contested.
The by-elections followed a year of astonishing change for a country that was in the grip of military rule for decades: the government has freed hundreds of political prisoners, held talks with ethnic minority rebels, relaxed censorship, allowed trade unions and showed signs of pulling back from the economic and political orbit of giant neighbor China.
"It is not so much our triumph as a triumph of the people, who have decided that they must be involved in the political process of this country," Suu Kyi told a crowd of cheering supporters at the NLD's headquarters in Yangon.
"We hope that this will be the beginning of a new era, when there will be more emphasis on the role of the people in the everyday politics of our country.
"We hope that all other parties that took part in the elections will be in a position to cooperate with us to create a genuinely democratic atmosphere in our nation."
The NLD, taking part in elections for the first time since it won 1990 polls which the military ignored, contested all but one of the 45 vacant seats in the legislature.
There was no word from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was formed by the military junta before it ceded power a year ago, or the Election Commission on the outcome of Sunday's ballots.
If confirmed, the sweep would mean the NLD even won four seats in the capital, Naypyitaw, a new city built by the former junta where most of the residents are government employees and military personnel, who were expected to back the USDP, the parliament's dominant party.
Video story http://link.reuters.com/bur37s
The United States and European Union had hinted they could lift some sanctions - imposed over the past two decades in response to human rights abuses - if the election was free and fair. Lifting sanctions could unleash a wave of investment in the resource-rich country bordering India and China.
But to be regarded as credible, and kick-start a widely expected rolling back of sanctions, the vote needs the blessing of Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest in November 2010.
She agreed in November to end the NLD's boycott of a quasi-civilian democratic system created and dominated by the same ex-generals who persecuted the pro-democracy camp.
That represented a giant leap of faith for Suu Kyi, who has found common ground with President Thein Sein, a former junta heavyweight who has surprised the world with the most dramatic political reforms since the military took power in a 1962 coup.
Western governments are waiting for Suu Kyi's endorsement of the poll to start reviewing political and trade sanctions, but on Monday, that was not forthcoming. She said there were flaws in the election, which would not be overlooked.
"We will point out all the irregularities that took place, not in any spirit of vengeance or anger, but because we do not think that these should be overlooked. It is only with the intention of making sure that things improve in future," she said.
Business executives, mostly from Asia but also from Europe and the United States, have swarmed into Yangon in recent weeks to hunt for investment opportunities in the country of 60 million people, one of the last frontier markets in Asia.
A small number of officials from Western countries and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were invited to attend the polls but were given only a few days to prepare. They called themselves "visitors" rather than observers.
Those who spoke to Reuters said infringements they saw were minor and they had seen no sign of mass fraud. The 2010 election was condemned as rigged to favor the USDP.
The NLD boycotted that vote. But just as Myanmar is changing, so too is Suu Kyi. Many see her now, at 66, as more politically astute, more realistic and ready to compromise. She has described Thein Sein as honest and sincere and accepted his appeal for the NLD to take part.
Her top priorities, she says, are introducing the rule of law, ending long-simmering insurgencies and amending the 2008 constitution that ensures the military retains a big political stake and its strong influence over the country.
Many expect Suu Kyi to exert considerable influence and some wonder if conservatives would dare oppose her in parliament given her popularity, especially ahead of a general election in 2015. Many MPs want to be seen aligned with her, basking in her popular support.
Some critics say Suu Kyi has got too close to a government stacked with the same former generals who persecuted dissidents, and fear she is being exploited to persuade the West to end sanctions and make parliament appear effective.
On the other hand, some have almost impossibly high hopes of what she can achieve in parliament.
"Too many expectations are dangerous," says Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner. "She is not a magician."
Some U.S. restrictions such as visa bans and asset freezes could be lifted quickly if the election goes smoothly, diplomats say, while the European Union may end its ban on investment in timber and the mining of gemstones and metals.
But some critics say sanctions should remain in place to encourage more reforms and ensure all political prisoners are freed and bloody conflicts with ethnic militias cease.
"Giving the NLD the ability to win an extremely limited number of seats in parliament is not enough," said Joe Crowley, who in January became the first U.S. congressman to visit Myanmar in 12 years. "Now is not the time for the international community to rush toward lifting pressure on Burma."
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)