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Myanmar democracy icon tests dictatorship, meets supporters

/ Source: The Associated Press

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday made her first political trip outside the repressive nation's main city since her release from seven years of house arrest, a crucial journey that will test the limits of her freedom.

The last time the democracy icon traveled into the countryside to meet supporters, assailants ambushed her entourage in an attack that eventually saw her detained and later placed under a long house arrest from which she was released last November.

Suu Kyi's one-day voyage to meet supporters Sunday in two towns north of the main city of Yangon was proceeding peacefully despite a government warning that it could trigger riots.

In the town of Bago, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate greeted more than 300 supporters at a pagoda as crowds shouted "Long Live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!"

Maw Thuza, a 35-year-old woman watching the scene, said, "I can die happily now that I've seen her."

Suu Kyi was traveling in a three-car convoy followed by about 27 more vehicles — filled mostly with journalists and supporters. Some people stood along the roadsides to wave as she passed. Security agents, with wireless microphones protruding from their civilian clothes, monitored the visit.

Bago is about 50 miles north of Yangon. Suu Kyi was also to visit political supporters in the nearby town of Thanatpin and open a public library, said one of her spokesman, Nyan Win, who said he expected the day to be peaceful.

More trips will follow, but neither the dates nor the destinations have been decided, Win said.

Win Htein, a leader of 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."

"This trip will be a test for everything," Htein said.

Half century of army rule
After half a 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 critics say 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 Friday, however, Suu Kyi held her second meeting with Labor and Social Welfare Minister Aung Kyi, opening a rare channel of dialogue between the two sides. 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 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 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, which Suu Kyi's party called unfair and undemocratic.

Suu Kyi has traveled outside Yangon since her release from house arrest. Last month, she journeyed to the ancient city of Bagan with her son on a private pilgrimage that nevertheless drew a large crowds of supporters and scores of undercover police and intelligence agents. Suu Kyi made no speeches, and the trip ended without incident.

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