Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was greeted by cheering crowds on Saturday as she hit the campaign trail in the constituency where she is standing for parliament for the first time.
Thousands of excited supporters lined the roads to greet her convoy of dozens of vehicles, waving flags of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party and photos of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Burmese independence hero Aung San.
The democracy icon has already made two campaign trips outside the city ahead of April’s by-elections, but this was her first day taking to the streets of the rural township of Kawhmu, near Yangon, where she is contesting the vote.
Shouts of “We warmly welcome mother Suu!” and “Long live Daw [Aunt] Aung San Suu Kyi!” rang out amid the cheers.
The NLD cannot threaten the army-backed party’s ruling majority even if it wins all 48 available seats, but the vote has important symbolic value as the first time Aung San Suu Kyi has been able to directly participate in a Myanmar election.
“I would like to ask for people to believe in us, as we respect and cherish the people,” she told the crowds gathered for her speech in one of the constituency’s villages.
“Without the support of the people, no organization and nobody can work for the benefit of the country. We can win anything if the people are involved in it,” she said.
A widely expected win for Aung San Suu Kyi would lend strong legitimacy to the country’s parliament, which first convened early last year and is dominated by former generals who kept her in detention for much of the past two decades.
“I’m very glad I can see her,” said 31-year-old housewife Nang Naing Naing Oo after Aung San Suu Kyi visited her village. “I expect she will work not just for one village, but for the development and success of the whole country.”
The NLD won a landslide victory in an election in 1990, but the then-ruling junta never allowed the party to take power. Aung San Suu Kyi was a figurehead for the party’s campaign, despite being under house arrest at the time.
She was released from her latest stint in detention a few days after a much-criticized election in 2010 and the upcoming polls are being held to fill places vacated by those who have since become government and deputy ministers.
Ahead of the campaign day, Aung San Suu Kyi said her party — which boycotted the 2010 election — was taking nothing for granted.
“We will work very hard to win all 48 seats. It’s not a matter of expectations, it’s a matter of hard work,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner said.
Controversy surrounding the 2010 vote means the by-elections will be heavily scrutinized.
However, the new regime has impressed even skeptics with its reform process, which has included signing ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebels, as well as welcoming the NLD back into the political mainstream.
Observers say the government needs Aung San Suu Kyi, an international idol, on side to garner support from Western powers and lift the strict economic sanctions they have imposed.
“No one will make a single move before she gives the green light,” said a Western diplomat focused on Myanmar, requesting anonymity.
The release of hundreds of political prisoners, a key demand of Aung San Suu Kyi and the West, has been particularly welcomed and led the US to begin restoring full diplomatic relations.