- Associated Press - Sunday, August 14, 2011

BAGO, Myanmar (AP) — Thousands of well-wishers lined roadsides in Myanmar to welcome opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she tested the limits of her freedom Sunday by taking her first political trip into the countryside since being released from house arrest.

The military-dominated country’s government had warned that the democracy icon’s journey could trigger riots, but the trip took place peacefully in two towns north of the main city of Yangon, and Mrs. Suu Kyi returned home without incident.

The last time Mrs. Suu Kyi 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 released only in November.

On Sunday, Mrs. Suu Kyi met hundreds of supporters in Bago, about 50 miles north of Yangon, and the nearby town of Thanatpin, where she gave a 10-minute speech calling for unity and support for her political party. She also urged residents to persevere despite economic hardships that have forced many to seek jobs abroad.

Addressing a crowd later in Bago, Mrs. Suu Kyi implied 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.”

After a half-century of army rule, the country formerly known as Burma organized elections late last year and officially handed power to a civilian administration in March. But Mrs. Suu Kyi’s party boycotted the vote and decried it as a sham. Critics say that the new government, led by retired military figures, is a proxy for continued military rule and that little has changed.

Some 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 Sunday, Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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.”

One of her party’s spokesmen, Nyan Win, said more trips will follow, but neither the dates nor the destinations have been decided.

Earlier in the day, crowds shouted, “Long live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!” as she visited a pagoda. A 35-year-old woman watching the scene, Ma Thuza, said, “I can die happily now that I’ve seen her.”

Mrs. Suu Kyi donated rice and money to a monastery where nearly 2,000 victims of recent floods have sought shelter.

Last month, Mrs. Suu Kyi journeyed to the ancient city of Bagan with her son on a private pilgrimage that nevertheless drew large crowds of supporters and scores of undercover police and intelligence agents. Mrs. Suu Kyi made no speeches, and the trip ended without incident.

In June, the government said it would not stop Mrs. Suu Kyi from traveling to the countryside to meet supporters, but it warned that the visits could trigger riots.

While little has changed in Myanmar since Mrs. Suu Kyi’s release, there have been tentative signs of a detente with the government. On Friday, Mrs. Suu Kyi held her second meeting with Labor and Social Welfare Minister Aung Kyi, a rare dialogue between the two sides. Few details of the meeting have been revealed, but the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Saturday that the two sides agreed to cooperate on national stability and development.

Also Friday, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan urged Mrs. 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.

If Mrs. Suu Kyi’s group reaches an accommodation with the government, it could serve as a reason for Western nations to lift political and economic embargoes on the country that have hindered development and pushed it into dependence on neighboring China.

The previous military government ordered the party’s dissolution after it refused to register for last November’s general election.

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