Pathein: Crowds of supporters greeted Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with thunderous applause as she embarked Tuesday on her first campaign trip since becoming an official candidate for April elections.
The 66-year-old Nobel Peace laureate traveled for the first time in two decades to the Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar`s rice bowl and the region most devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Crowds lined the roads to shout support to Suu Kyi at every major town along her four-hour drive south from Yangon to Pathein, the regional capital. More than 10,000 people packed into a sports stadium under a sweltering sun to hear her speak.
One giant banner strung through the stands hailed Suu Kyi, the longtime political prisoner, as "Mother Democracy."
A later rally in an open field in the town of Myaungmya, 19 miles (32 kilometers) south of Pathein, drew a similar-sized crowd, and held special personal meaning for Suu Kyi.
"I am happy to be here because it is the hometown of my mother," she told the crowd. "There is some blood of Myaungmya in me."
Suu Kyi, who had been living abroad after graduating from Britain`s Oxford University, became enmeshed in Myanmar`s politics when she came home to care for her ailing mother, Khin Kyi, as mass pro-democracy protests were breaking out in 1988.
Suu Kyi`s return to electoral politics is another test of the reforms of the new nominally civilian government that took power last year after decades of military control. Her latest trip came a day after the Election Commission formally accepted her candidacy for an April parliamentary by-election.
Suu Kyi last visited the Irrawaddy region during a campaign tour in 1989, when she faced down soldiers in the town of Danuphyu who had taken firing positions with their rifles aimed at her. It was one of several dramatic confrontations with the ruling military junta ahead of 1990 elections, which Suu Kyi`s party won but the junta refused to recognize.
"I remember the last time I was here 20 years ago," Suu Kyi told the ecstatic crowd, where some fainted under the hot sun. "I see the same kind of support."
Outlining her party`s objectives for entering Parliament, Suu Kyi said the National League for Democracy would seek to end ethnic conflicts and "try to achieve internal peace" and the rule of law. She called on supporters to ensure that April elections are free and fair.
"Please don`t forget to vote for the NLD!" Suu Kyi told the crowd, which listened raptly as she spoke.
"Those who are standing in the front rows please sit down so other people can see," Suu Kyi said at one point. Suddenly, thousands of people sat down in unison.
The upcoming by-election is being held to fill 48 parliamentary seats vacated by lawmakers who were appointed to the Cabinet or other posts.
Suu Kyi is running for a seat representing Kawhmu, a poor district south of Yangon, the country`s largest city, but has launched a national campaign to lobby support for other members of her party.
The new government`s rapid reforms have surprised even some of the country`s toughest critics. It has released hundreds of political prisoners, signed cease-fire deals with ethnic rebels, increased media freedoms and eased censorship laws.
Myanmar`s government hopes the changes will prompt the lifting of economic sanctions imposed under the junta`s rule. Western governments and the United Nations have said they will review the sanctions only after gauging whether the April polls are carried out freely and fairly.
On Monday, the US eased one of its many sanctions as a reward for Myanmar`s progress. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed a waiver that should make it easier for Myanmar to secure help from the World Bank and other international financial institutions by lifting US opposition to them conducting assessments.