Euphoric seas of 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. Some cried as her convoy passed.
Cheered by tens of thousands, the 66-year-old opposition leader electrified Myanmar's repressive political landscape everywhere she traveled Sunday on her first political tour of the countryside since her party registered to run in a historic ballot 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 “We will bring rule of law … and we will see to it that repressive laws are repealed.”
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 by-elections 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.
Suu Kyi's visit was equivalent to waking a sleeping dragon, said environmental activist Aung Zaw Hein.
“People had been afraid to discuss politics for so long,” he said. “Now that she's visiting, the political spirit of people has been awakened.”
Looking into the giant crowds, Hein added: “I've never seen people's faces look like this before. For the first time, they have hope in their eyes.”
Businesman Ko Ye 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 anytime.”
After nearly half a century of iron-fisted 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 laws.
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.
Some critics are concerned the government is using its opening with Suu Kyi to show it's committed to reform. The government needs her support to get years of harsh Western sanctions lifted.
On Sunday, 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. Up for grabs are 48 seats vacated by lawmakers who were appointed to the Cabinet and other posts.
Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the past 23 years under house arrest, and as a result, has rarely traveled outside Yangon. Although she conducted one successful day of rallies north of Yangon last year, a previous political tour to greet supporters in 2003 sparked a bloody ambush of her convoy that saw her forcibly confined at her lakeside home.
She was finally released from house arrest in late 2010, just days after the elections that installed the current government and led to the junta's official disbandment.
Suu Kyi met with party members in Dawei, including one running for a parliament seat. She will make similar political trips to other areas, including the country's second-largest city, Mandalay, in early February before officially campaigning for her own seat, party spokesman Nyan Win said.
Suu Kyi is hoping to represent the constituency of Kawhmu, a poor district just south of Yangon where some villagers' homes were destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Lay Lay Myint, a 35-year-old grocery store manager, said Suu Kyi's platform in parliament would allow her to “let the world know what is happening” in Myanmar.
“People have been living in fear here,” Myint said. “Just seeing her hear makes us braver, more courageous.”