Thousands of supporters in Burma's countryside cheered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi today as she made a political tour ahead of by-elections, highlighting how quickly and dramatically politics is changing in the long-repressed south-east Asian nation.
Throngs of people lined the roads of several towns in the southern district of Dawei shouting: "Long Live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi." Daw is a title of respect in Burma.
Many waved bouquets of flowers, and some hoisted babies on their shoulders to glimpse the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political prisoner on her first political trip since announcing a bid for parliament.
"We will bring democracy to the country," Ms Suu Kyi told an exuberant crowd of thousands. "We will work for development. We will bring rule of law to the country, and we will see to it that repressive laws are repealed."
"We can overcome any obstacle with unity and perseverance," she said from the second-storey balcony of a provincial office for her National League for Democracy party.
Ms Suu Kyi, 66, has devoted much of her life to a struggle against authoritarian rule but spent 15 of the past 23 years under house arrest and has never held elected office. If she wins, she is likely to have limited power in the legislature, which remains dominated by the military and the ruling party, but victory would be highly symbolic and would give her a voice in government for the first time.
The one-day trip to Dawei follows a series of unprecedented reforms enacted by the nominally civilian government that took over when a military junta ceded power last year. The government has released hundreds of political prisoners, reached ceasefire deals with ethnic rebels, increased media freedoms and eased censorship laws.
The April 1 by-election is being held to fill 48 seats in the lower house of parliament that were vacated after politicians were appointed to the cabinet and other posts.
Ms Suu Kyi's party boycotted the last vote in 2010, but registered earlier this month for the by-election after authorities amended electoral laws, enabling her party to legally participate.
The Election Commission must still accept Ms Suu Kyi's candidacy. A ruling is expected in February.
Ms Suu Kyi is hoping to run as a representative of the constituency of Kawhmu, a poor district just south of Rangoon where villagers' livelihoods were devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
The vote is being closely watched because it is seen as a crucial test of the government's commitment to change.