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Thousands cheer Suu Kyi on campaign trail

By Paula Hancocks and Moni Basu, CNN
February 13, 2012 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Aung San Suu Kyi takes her campaign for a parliament seat to Kaw Hmu, Myanmar, on Saturday.
Aung San Suu Kyi takes her campaign for a parliament seat to Kaw Hmu, Myanmar, on Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Adoring supporters greet Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi
  • She is running for a parliamentary seat in southern Myanmar
  • 48 seats are under contention in April elections
  • Suu Kyi, Myanmar's face of democracy, spent years under house arrest

Kawhmu, Myanmar (CNN) -- Thousands of cheering people crammed the streets in a southern Myanmar district Saturday to catch a glimpse of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on the historic first official day of her campaign.

Supporters lined the streets of Kawhmu with the party flags of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy as the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate's convoy of 40 cars and vans made its way south to Kawhmu.

It was the first time Suu Kyi, hidden from her people for years under house arrest, has been able to openly campaign, the first time people have been able to publicly support her.

One banner said: "We want peace and human rights by the people for the people."

A year ago, the scene might have been unthinkable.

No wonder then that Suu Kyi was greeted Saturday more like a rock star than a politician.

Aung San Suu Kyi campaigns in Myanmar
Tourists discover Myanmar

She plans to hit the campaign trail for the next 50 days.

Dressed in white, Suu Kyi popped out from the sunroof of her vehicle, clutching in her hand flowers that have come to symbolize defiance in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

She registered last month to run for a parliamentary seat in Kawhmu after Myanmar's autocratic regime agreed to negotiate with an ethnic rebel group and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners.

National reconciliation has been a priority for Suu Kyi.

The international community has applauded liberalization efforts in Myanmar, long secluded from the rest of the world since a military junta grabbed power in 1962. The generals began loosening their grip after international criticism for their country's abysmal human rights record.

Western nations have recently extended an olive branch of sorts, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December, becoming the first top U.S. diplomat in the nation in more than five decades.

Suu Kyi's party boycotted the 2010 elections that put the military-backed civilian government of President Thein Sein in place.

But she can only hope to make a small dent in parliament. The National League for Democracy is putting up candidates for all 48 parliamentary seats that are being contested. Even if every National League for Democracy candidate wins, the party will have a sliver of votes in the 440-seat lower house.

However, the symbolic importance of her run does not escape anyone. Excited supporters were talking about when Suu Kyi will be in parliament -- not if.

The daughter of Gen. Aung San, a hero of Burmese independence, Suu Kyi herself became an inspiration with her fight for democracy.

She quietly defied Myanmar's military junta for years from from the prison of her disintegrating Inya Lake villa in the former capital, Yangon. She was released from house arrest in November 2010.

Paula Hancocks reported from Kawhmu, Myanmar and Moni Basu, from Atlanta.

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