Tens of thousands of Burmese came out today to greet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on her first campaign trip since becoming an official candidate for April's parliamentary elections.
In another example of the loosening-up in the long-time military-ruled country, neither the iconic opposition leader nor the crowds in two towns in the south she visited appeared to meet any hindrance from authorities.
It was her first time in the region in more than 20 years and comes on the heels of a spate of reforms by Myanmar's government, including the mass release of hundreds of political prisoners and the loosening of restrictions on the press.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi told a raucous crowd estimated at more than 40,000 in Pathein, the regional capital of the rice-growing Irrawaddy region on the southern coast, that if elected to parliament – the same parliament she once boycotted after being prevented from running for office – she believed she could help “make changes in the constitution, to have the rule of law and to work for internal peace.”
The assembled Burmese bellowed “Long Live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!”
Earlier Tuesday morning, during the four hour road trip from Yangon to Pathein, Aung San Suu Kyi's cortege was repeatedly mobbed by party supporters waving the party's peacock-emblazoned red flag. Women, their faces whitened by thanaka paste – a Burmese makeup made from ground-up bark – emerged from their brown and gray timber/bamboo huts nestled under dew-covered green palms by the roadside to wave and greet the opposition leader.
[ Video is no longer available. ]
Throughout the day-long trip, as the sun rose high and hot to burn off the thick dawn mist shrouding the ricefields along the pock-marked roadway, the opposition leader repeatedly emerging through her 4x4 sunroof to shake hands with supporters and accept garlands of roses from them.
For long-repressed Myanmar (Burma), it was a rare chance to see the country's best-known political icon. For Aung San Suu Kyi, it was an opportunity to test her much-vaunted popularity ahead of the upcoming elections.
“We have not seen The Lady [a popular local nickname for Aung San Suu Kyi] here in more than 20 years,” says Kyaw Win, as he links arms with other local volunteers in Pathein to prevent the eager, surging crowd from swarming Aung San Suu Kyi's vehicle.
Later on Tuesday afternoon, she stopped off in Myangmya, a dusty town an hour from Pathein that once was a hotbed of anti-colonial activism during British rule in Myanmar, to give another speech. The throng of people waiting was perhaps 15,000-strong, by some estimates.
It has been more than two decades since Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has campaigned for election in Myanmar. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in 1990 polls, but she and many party colleagues spent many of the intervening years under arrest. Now her party is contesting 48 seats in upcoming by-elections, and after some recent reforms, such as the freeing of hundreds of long-detained political prisoners, the Myanmar government is allowing the country's political icon to press the flesh.
There have been a couple caveats, however. Today's speeches came after a similar gathering slated for Myanmar's second-biggest city Mandalay on Feb. 2 was cancelled after the NLD was denied permission to hold the event in the city's main soccer stadium.
The army's Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won the 2010 elections by a landslide and, along with the 25 percent quota of house seats for current army cadres, has an unassailable 80 percent majority in parliament. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD wins all 40 lower house seats, and the eight others going at regional and senate levels, for now it won't change Myanmar's power structures much.
Still, NLD deputy leader U Tin Oo is optimistic about the longterm benefits of the elections. He says he believes the vote will be free and fair, and that as a consequence, his party “will win most or all of the seats.”
Mr. U Tin Oo, who was born in Pathein, says that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party believe that the Myanmar government “is very much sincere, for the time being” about its reformist intentions, amid concerns that the military-backed government could backslide at any time.
If U Tin Oo's confidence in the outcome and in Myanmar's reform path proves prescient, then Aung San Suu Kyi will be back, to paraphrase the NLD party campaign tune – an American bluegrass-sounding jingle set to Burmese lyrics that played on loop all day Tuesday during the Aung San Suu Kyi campaign trip.
Indeed, supporters showed her influence when thousands today gathered at dawn in Pathein to hear her speak. One of those sitting on the grass at the Ko Thein soccer stadium is Bo Htet. “I came at 5 a.m. with my friend Phyo Win,” he says of his early morning vigil. “It was a happy day for us when we hear Daw (a Burmese honorific meaning 'Aunt'] Suu speak.”