- Aung San Suu Kyi - Burma - elections - Reform - sanctions
Burma's Suu Kyi launches campaign ahead of April vote
Burma's democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi hit the campaign trail on Sunday ahead of April 1 parliamentary by-elections that will put the nominally civilian regime's new commitment to reform to the test.
AFP - Huge crowds lined the streets to greet Myanmar 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.
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 a jubilant crowd that filled the southern town soon after her arrival.
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 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 dialogue with the opposition, welcoming the NLD back into the political mainstream 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 and poverty, but controversy surrounding the 2010 vote means the upcoming by-elections will be scrutinised by the international community.
The NLD is running for all 48 seats up for grabs in the polls and Suu Kyi is standing in a rural constituency near Yangon. Sunday's one-day visit was in support of the party's 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 convoy was trailed by a large number of cars and motorbikes as she travelled out of Dawei town through a series of villages, where she was cheered by hundreds of enthusiastic locals and schoolchildren in uniform.
At Aung Soe's constituency the 66-year-old Suu Kyi, known here as "The Lady", was met by many more supporters, with crowds reminiscent of the night she was released from seven years of house arrest days after the 2010 election.
Suu Kyi's outing will later take her to the area where a huge industrial site, the Dawei Development Project, is set to transform a sleepy strip of coastline with a strategic deep sea port.
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 will be a boost to the legislature's credibility.
Her first political trip was last year to the Bago region north of Yangon, which passed off peacefully.
Security had been a concern as Suu Kyi's convoy was attacked in 2003, 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 of its status as a legal political party after boycotting a national election in 2010, saying the rules were unfair.