DAWEI, Myanmar - Euphoric seas of supporters waved opposition party flags and offered yellow garlands 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 and we will see to it that repressive laws are repealed."
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."
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.
The government still needs Suu Kyi's support to get years of harsh Western sanctions lifted.
Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the past 23 years under house arrest, and as a result, has rarely traveled outside Yangon.