KAWHMU, Myanmar (AP) — Thousands of cheering supporters swarmed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday as the democracy icon took her historic campaign for a parliament seat to the southern constituency she hopes to represent for the first time.
Supporters waving her political party's flag came out in force to catch a glimpse of the 66-year-old Nobel Peace laureate as her convoy crawled from the main city Yangon to Kawhmu, a poor, rural district to the south.
"The road ahead will be tough," Suu Kyi told a crowd of several thousand people gathered in a dusty field in the village of Wah Thin Kha, where she will cast a ballot in the April 1 by-election. "But our goal is to achieve peace, stability and development."
"I acknowledge there are difficulties," Suu Kyi said. "But let others know we need the people's support. Let us overcome the hurdles together."
The April vote is being held to fill 48 parliamentary seats vacated by lawmakers who were appointed to the Cabinet or other posts last year. The ballot is seen as a test of the new government's commitment to democratic change after nearly half a century of iron-fisted army rule.
President Thein Sein's military-backed administration has embarked on a series of reforms that have surprised even some of the country's harshest critics. It has released hundreds of political prisoners, signed cease-fire deals with ethnic rebels, and increased media freedoms — despite coming to power last year after 2010 elections that Suu Kyi's party boycotted and Western nations said were neither free nor fair.
Even if Suu Kyi's party wins all 48 seats, however, it will have minimal power. The 440-seat lower house is overwhelmingly dominated by ruling party allies of the former junta and 25 percent of lawmakers are, by law, military appointees.
On Saturday, Suu Kyi and her entourage made the 16-mile (25-kilometer) journey to Kawhmu down a crumbling road. It took three hours to get there, and a couple more to reach nearby Wah Thin Kha. The lengthy trip underscored how undeveloped Myanmar is.
Along the way, banners proclaimed "We're All in This Together!" while music blared from loudspeakers with homespun lyrics that screamed: Myanmar "will prosper only after Daw Suu wins the race."
"Daw" is an honorific of respect used for older women.
At a youth meeting Thursday, Suu Kyi told party members that "even one seat is important."
A victory would be historic for Suu Kyi, who spent most of the last two decades under house arrest. She would have a voice in government for the first time after decades as the country's opposition leader.
In 1990, while she was still under house arrest, her party won a sweeping election victory but the then-ruling military junta refused to honor the results.
The government hopes the reforms it has enacted since last year's election — including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners — will prompt the lifting of economic sanctions imposed under the junta's rule. Western governments and the United Nations have said they will review the sanctions only after gauging whether the April polls are carried out freely and fairly.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects crowd size in third paragraph.)