Thousands of well-wishers lined roadsides in Myanmar to welcome opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she tested the limits of her freedom yesterday by taking her first political trip into the countryside since being released from house arrest.
The military-dominated government had warned that the democracy icon’s journey could trigger riots, but it took place peacefully in two towns north of the main city of Yangon.
The last time she traveled out of Yangon to meet supporters, assailants ambushed her entourage. She escaped harm, but was detained and placed under seven years of house arrest, from which she was only released last November.
Yesterday, Aung San Suu Kyi opened public libraries in Bago, about 80km north of Yangon, and the nearby town of Thanatpin, where she addressed hundreds of supporters in a 10-minute speech calling for unity and asking people to continue to support her political party.
She also urged them to persevere despite economic hardships that have forced many to seek jobs abroad.
She made a similar speech in Bago, implying that true democratic change will take time.
“I know what the people want and I am trying my best to fulfill the wishes of the people,” she said. “However, I don’t want to give false hope.”
Earlier in Bago during a visit to a pagoda, crowds shouted “Long Live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!”
Ma Thuza, a 35-year-old woman watching the scene, said: “I can die happily now that I’ve seen her.”
Aung San Suu Kyi traveled 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 Aung San 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 red roses and jasmine flowers.
Win Htein, a leader of Aung San 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.”
“This trip will be a test for everything,” Htein said.
One of her party’s spokesman, Nyan Win, said more trips would follow, but adding that neither the dates nor the destinations have been decided.
After half a century of army rule, elections were held late last year and power was officially handed to a civilian administration in March. However, critics say the new government, led by retired military figures, is a proxy for continued military rule and that little has changed.
About 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars, more than 100,000 refugees live in neighboring countries and sporadic clashes have erupted in the northeast between government troops and ethnic militias who have been fighting for greater autonomy for decades.
On Friday, however, Aung San Suu Kyi held her second meeting with Myanmar Labor and Social Welfare Minister Aung Kyi, opening a rare channel of dialogue between the two sides. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported on Saturday that the two sides agreed to cooperate on national stability and development.
Also on Friday, Myanmar Information Minister Kyaw Hsan urged Aung San Suu Kyi to officially register her National League for Democracy as a party, a step that would imply its acceptance of the government’s legitimacy and also allow it to legally take part in politics.