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Thousands cheer Suu Kyi in Myanmar

Populist hailed in first tour since party registered

Myanmar prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to supporters yesterday in Dawei, during a campaign stop of her party — the National League for Democracy — ahead of April’s by-elections.Khin Maung Win/Associated Press

DAWEI, Myanmar - Euphoric supporters waved opposition-party flags and offered yellow garlands. They lined crumbling roads for miles and climbed atop trees, cars, and roofs as Aung San Suu Kyi spoke at impromptu rallies yesterday. Some cried as her convoy passed.

Cheered by tens of thousands, the 66-year-old opposition leader electrified the repressive political landscape in this country formerly known as Burma during her first political tour of the countryside since her party registered to run in a historic election that could see her elected to Parliament for the first time.

“We will bring democracy to the country,’’ Suu Kyi said to roaring applause as her voice boomed through loudspeakers from the balcony of a National League for Democracy office in the southern coastal district of Dawei. “We will bring rule of law . . . and we will see to it that repressive laws are repealed.’’

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As huge crowds screamed “Long Live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!’’ and others held banners saying “You Are Our Heart,’’ she said: “We can overcome any obstacle with unity and perseverance, however difficult it may be.’’

Suu Kyi’s campaign and the by-elections that are due April 1 are being watched closely by the international community, which sees the vote as a crucial test of whether the military-backed government is really committed to reform.

The mere fact that Suu Kyi was able to speak openly in public in Dawei - and her supporters were able to greet her en masse without fear of reprisal - was proof of dramatic progress itself. Such scenes would have been unthinkable just a year ago, when the long-ruling junta was still in power and demonstrations were all but banned.

“People had been afraid to discuss politics for so long,’’ said environmental activist Aung Zaw Hein. “Now that she’s visiting, the political spirit of people has been awakened.’’

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Looking into the huge crowds, Hein added: “I’ve never seen people’s faces look like this before. For the first time, they have hope in their eyes.’’

Ko Ye, a businessman, said he was ecstatic that Suu Kyi came, and like most people here, he welcomed the recent dramatic changes that made her trip possible. “We are all hoping for democracy,’’ the 49-year-old said, “but we’re afraid these reforms can be reversed at any time.’’

After nearly half a century of military rule, a nominally civilian government took office last March. The new government has surprised even some of its toughest critics by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing cease-fire deals with ethnic rebels, increasing media freedoms, and easing censorship.

Suu Kyi’s party boycotted the 2010 election as neither free nor fair. It sought to have its legal status restored after the government amended electoral laws. Her party has been cleared to offer candidates in the April vote, and an Election Commission ruling on Suu Kyi’s candidacy is expected in February.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi said the opposition had struggled for democracy for decades, but the best way to do that now was to fight “from within Parliament.’’ But she also expressed caution over the challenges ahead. “It’s easy to make problems, but it’s not easy to implement them,’’ she said. “We have a lot to do.’’

An NLD victory would be highly symbolic, but her party would have limited power since the Legislature is overwhelmingly dominated by the military and the ruling pro-military party.

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