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Thousands greet Suu Kyi on Myanmar campaign trail

world Updated: Jan 29, 2012 11:21 IST
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Thousands lined the streets to greet Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she hit the campaign trail on Sunday ahead of by-elections seen as a key test of the regime's commitment to reform.

Thousands flocked to hear the Nobel Peace Prize winner speak in the coastal district of Dawei, as she made her first political trip outside Yangon since declaring she would stand for office in the April 1 polls.

"If we move in the right direction our country will have many opportunities. We are eager to seize them," she told the jubilant crowd which filled the southern town.

Suu Kyi's decision to stand for a seat in parliament is the latest sign of dramatic change sweeping through the country formerly known as Burma after the end of decades of outright military rule.

A new government dominated by former generals has surprised observers with a series of reforms since taking office last year, including dialogue with the opposition and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party was recently welcomed back into the political mainstream, further raising hopes of an end to decades of isolation and poverty as Western nations consider easing sanctions.

The party is running for all 48 seats up for grabs in the by-elections and Suu Kyi is standing in a rural constituency near Yangon. Sunday's one-day visit was in support of NLD candidate Aung Soe, who is standing in a local township.

"We have requested many times for Daw Suu to campaign for our region... She hasn't been here for 23 years," he told AFP. Daw is a term of respect in Myanmar.

Traffic clogged the roads in Dawei as local people thronged to get a glimpse of the NLD leader, who spent much of the past two decades in detention.

"You are our heart," proclaimed banners held up in the crowds, with many people sporting NLD t-shirts and trying to give flowers and gifts to the opposition campaigner.

Suu Kyi's outing will take her to the area where a huge and controversial industrial site, the Dawei Development Project, is set to transform a sleepy strip of southern coastline.

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

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

The April polls are to fill places vacated by those elected in 2010 who have since become ministers and deputy ministers in the government.

Although the seats available are not enough to threaten the resounding majority held by the army-backed ruling party, Suu Kyi's participation, if the polls are free and fair, will be a boost to the legislature's credibility.

She has made few ventures outside her home city since her release. Her first political trip was last year to the Bago region north of Yangon, which passed off peacefully and saw her feted by thousands of supporters.

Security had been a concern as Suu Kyi's convoy was attacked in 2003 during a political trip, in an ambush apparently organised by a junta frightened by 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 off its status as a legal political party after boycotting a national election in 2010, saying the rules were unfair. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a few days after the poll.