Thousands turn out as Suu Kyi puts her freedom to the test

Thousands of well-wishers lined roadsides in Burma to welcome opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday as she tested the limits of her freedom by taking her first political trip into the countryside since being released from house arrest.

The military-dominated country's government had warned that the Suu Kyi's journey could trigger riots, but it took place peacefully in two towns north of the main city of Rangoon, and the democracy icon returned home without incident.

The last time Suu Kyi travelled out of Rangoon to meet supporters, assailants ambushed her entourage. She escaped harm but was detained and placed under seven years of house arrest, and released last November.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi met hundreds of supporters in Bago, about 50 miles north of Rangoon, and the nearby town of Thanatpin, where she gave a 10-minute speech calling for unity and support for her political party.

Addressing a crowd later in Bago, Suu Kyi said that true democratic change will take time. "I know what the people want and I am trying my best to fulfil the wishes of the people," she said. "However, I don't want to give false hope."

After half a century of army rule, Burma organised elections late last year and officially handed power to a civilian administration in March. But Suu Kyi's party boycotted the vote and decried it as a sham. Critics say the new government, led by retired military figures, is a proxy for continued military rule and that little has changed.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi travelled in a three-car convoy followed by about 27 more vehicles filled mostly with journalists and supporters. Security agents, with wireless microphones protruding from their civilian clothes, monitored each stop she made.

Thousands of people lined the roadsides to catch a glimpse of Suu Kyi's convoy as it passed by, some cheering and waving. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate stopped several times, and well-wishers handed her flowers.

Win Htein, a leader of Suu Kyi's party, said the trip was crucial because it "will test the reaction of the authorities and will test the response of the people."