Thousands greet Suu Kyi on Burma campaign trail

Thousands greet Suu Kyi on Burma campaign trail

Huge crowds of jubilant supporters hailed Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she hit the campaign trail Sunday ahead of by-elections seen as a key test of the regime's commitment to reform.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (C) is greeted by supporters as she arrives to address a gathering as part of her campaign trail on the outskirts of Myanmar's southern city of Dawei. Huge crowds of jubilant supporters hailed Suu Kyi as she hit the campaign trail Sunday ahead of by-elections seen as a key test of the regime's commitment to reform.

Tens of thousands flocked to get a glimpse of the Nobel Peace Prize winner in the coastal district of Dawei, as she made her first political trip outside Rangoon since declaring she would stand for office in the April 1 polls.

Streets were flooded with local people waving flags, cheering and dancing with delight at the appearance of the democracy icon, who could be swept into parliament by the vote.

Surveying the sea of people packed along a main road in the southern town, Suu Kyi said she "chose the right place" to kick off her campaign tour.

"People need to watch to make sure the coming by-elections are free and fair. There should be no vote buying and no threats to get votes," she told the crowd at the end of her one-day visit.

Suu Kyi's decision to stand for a seat in parliament is the latest sign of dramatic change taking place in the country formerly known as Burma after the end of nearly half a century of outright military rule.

A new government dominated by former generals came to power last year following November 2010 elections that were marred by cheating and the absence of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The regime has since surprised observers with a series of reforms, including welcoming the NLD back into the political mainstream, ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebels and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

Western nations are now considering easing sanctions, further raising hopes of an end to decades of isolation, but controversy surrounding the 2010 vote means the upcoming by-elections will be heavily scrutinised.

The NLD is running for all 48 seats up for grabs in the polls and Suu Kyi is standing in a rural constituency near Rangoon. Sunday's visit was in support of Aung Soe, the party's candidate in a local township.

"If we move in the right direction our country will have many opportunities. We are eager to seize them," Suu Kyi said in a speech in Dawei.

"For the security of the people, the rule of law is very important... We hope to give back to the people by working for more stability in people's lives," added the 66-year-old, known here as "The Lady".

Local people brought flowers and gifts and held up their children to see the NLD leader, with banners proclaiming "You are our heart".

Traffic clogged the roads as Suu Kyi's convoy, trailed by a large number of cars and motorbikes, travelled around the district.

One 30-year-old woman told AFP that she was very glad Suu Kyi had chosen Dawei for the first major stop on her campaign tour. "We love her," she said.

Suu Kyi's outing took her to an area set to be transformed by a huge industrial site and strategic deep sea port, the Dawei Development Project.

The Thai-led, multi-billion dollar development has sparked fears of a potential influx of "dirty" industry and the displacement of thousands.

But in another sign of burgeoning reform, the government cancelled a proposed coal-fired power plant at the site this month citing "environmental problems".

The April polls, held to fill places vacated by those elected in 2010 who have since become ministers and deputy ministers in the government, will be the first time Suu Kyi has been able to directly participate in a Burma vote.

Her involvement may boost the legislature's credibility, but the seats available are not enough to threaten a majority held by the army-backed ruling party.

Suu Kyi was released from house arrest days after the 2010 election and has seen increasingly warm relations with the new regime, with some suggesting she could even take a role in government if elected to parliament.

Her first political trip since being freed passed off peacefully last year when Suu Kyi visited the Bago region north of Rangoon.

Security had been a concern as Suu Kyi's convoy was attacked in 2003, in an ambush possibly organised by a junta frightened of her popularity.

The NLD won an election in 1990 by a landslide while Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, but the ruling generals ignored the result.

The party was stripped of its legal status after boycotting the 2010 elections, saying the rules were unfair.

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