PATHEIN, Myanmar — Crowds of supporters greeted Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with thunderous applause as she embarked Tuesday on her first campaign trip since becoming an official candidate for April elections.
The Nobel Peace laureate traveled for the first time in two decades to the Irrawaddy delta, Myanmar's rice bowl and the region most devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Crowds lined the roads to shout support to Suu Kyi at every major town along her four-hour drive south from Yangon to Pathein, the Irrawaddy's regional capital. More than 10,000 people packed into a sports stadium under a sweltering sun to hear her speak.
One giant banner strung through the stands hailed Suu Kyi, the longtime political prisoner, as "Mother Democracy."
Suu Kyi's return to politics is another test of the reforms of the new nominally civilian government that took power last year after decades of military control. Her latest trip came a day after the Election Commission formally accepted her candidacy for an April parliamentary by-election.
Suu Kyi last visited the Irrawaddy region during a campaign tour in 1989, when soldiers in the town of Danuphyu briefly pointed their rifles at her. It was one of several dramatic confrontations with the ruling military junta ahead of 1990 elections, which Suu Kyi's party won but the junta refused to recognize.
"I remember the last time I was here 20 years ago," Suu Kyi told the ecstatic crowd, where some fainted under the hot sun. "I see the same kind of support."
Outlining her party's objectives for entering Parliament, Suu Kyi said the National League for Democracy would seek to end ethnic conflicts and "try to achieve internal peace" and the rule of law. She called on supporters to ensure that April elections are free and fair.
"Please don't forget to vote for the NLD!" Suu Kyi told the crowd, which listened raptly as she spoke.
"Those who are standing in the front rows please sit down so other people can see," Suu Kyi said at one point and suddenly thousands of people sat down in unison.
The upcoming by-election is being held to fill 48 parliamentary seats vacated by lawmakers who were appointed to the Cabinet or other posts.
Suu Kyi is running for a seat representing Kawhmu, a poor district south of Yangon, but has launched a national campaign to lobby support for other members of her party.
The new government's rapid reforms have surprised even some of the country's toughest critics. It has released hundreds of political prisoners, signed cease-fire deals with ethnic rebels, increased media freedoms and eased censorship laws.
Myanmar's government hopes the changes 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.
On Monday, Washington eased one of its many sanctions as a reward for the country's progress.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed a waiver that should make it easier for Myanmar to secure help from the World Bank and other international financial institutions by lifting U.S. opposition to them conducting assessments.