| DAWEI, Myanmar
DAWEI, Myanmar Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on Sunday for changes to the military-drafted constitution, on her first political trip since ending a boycott of the country's political system last year and announcing plans to run for parliament.
Thousands of supporters lined the roads, many shouting "Long live mother Suu," as her motorcade wound through the rural coastal region of Dawei, about 615 km (380 miles) south of her home city, Yangon, the main business centre.
The trip, only her fourth outside Yangon since her release from years of house arrest in November 2010, demonstrates the growing prominence of the Nobel Peace laureate as the Southeast Asian state emerges from half a century of isolation.
"There are certain laws which are obstacles to the freedom of the people and we will strive to abolish these laws within the framework of the parliament," Suu Kyi said to cheers from supporters, after meeting officials of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Dawei.
The NLD, though well known in the country, has limited political experience. It won an election by a landslide in 1990, a year after Suu Kyi began a lengthy period of incarceration, but the then rulers ignored the result and detained many party members and supporters.
The NLD boycotted the next election, held in 2010 and won by a military-backed party after opposition complaints of rigging.
Her address on Sunday offered the most extensive detail yet of the policies she would bring to parliament.
She said she wants to revise a 2008 army-drafted constitution that gives the military wide-ranging powers, including the ability to appoint key cabinet members, take control of the country in a state of emergency and occupy a quarter of the seats in parliament.
"We need to amend certain parts of the constitution," she said, adding the international community was poised to help Myanmar "once we are on an irreversible road to democracy."
Although campaigning for the April 1 by-elections has not formally begun, her speeches in villages and cities near Dawei on Sunday had the unmistakable feel of a campaign. Many cheering supporters waved red-and-white party flags. Some wore "Suu Kyi" t-shirts. Others painted their faces in her party's colors.
Suu Kyi said the elections must be "free and fair," and that any government that lies must be removed.
"Will never cheat the people. If we cannot do, we will tell you frankly that we cannot do. And if we can do it, we will do it," she at Maungmagan beach near Dawei. "For the NLD to do its duty, please vote for the NLD."
She also addressed Myanmar's long history of ethnic conflicts, particularly fighting that has raged since June between government soldiers and ethnic Kachins. Rebellions have simmered in other regions since independence from Britain in 1948.
"Diversity is not something to be afraid of, it can be enjoyed," Suu Kyi said. "If there is a person who remains without independence, it means the entire country lacks independence."
One diplomat in the crowd praised Sunday's speeches as her best yet. "She's becoming more and more explicitly political and talking about the importance of policies," he said.
Suu Kyi and her allies are contesting 48 seats in various legislatures including the 440-seat lower house in by-elections that could give political credibility to Myanmar and help advance the end of Western sanctions.
Business executives, mostly from Asia, have swarmed into Yangon in recent weeks to hunt for investment opportunities in one of the last frontier markets in Asia, after European Union and U.S. officials said that sanctions could be lifted if voters were able to vote freely in April's elections.
Myanmar is also at the centre of a struggle for strategic influence as the United States sees a chance to expand its ties there and balance China's fast-growing economic and political sway in the region.
The visit to Dawei gave rural voters a rare glimpse of 66-year-old Suu Kyi, a symbol of defiance whose past trips outside Yangon were met with suspicion and violence by the former junta, which handed power to a nominally civilian parliament in March.
Since then, the government has embarked on a dramatic reform drive, freeing hundreds of political prisoners, loosening media controls, calling for peace with ethnic insurgents and openly engaging with Suu Kyi and other opposition figures.
Those and other changes make this trip vastly different from a July 5 visit to Bagan north of Yangon, where she was trailed by undercover police and kept a low profile, fearful of a repeat of an attack on her motorcade in 2003 in which 70 supporters were killed.
Many Burmese speculate that a senior government role, possibly even a cabinet post, awaits Suu Kyi, the daughter of assassinated independence hero General Aung San.
But to get there, much work lies ahead.
Her party has limited resources. Its headquarters are cramped and crumbling. Its senior ranks are filled with ageing activists. And there are questions over how much influence it can wield in a year-old parliament stacked with military appointees and former generals.
Her supporters, however, say her presence would bring a powerful pro-democracy voice to a chamber where many members remain reluctant to speak their mind.
"She will be able to do more inside the parliament than if she remained on the outside. There are some crucial things to do urgently concerning ethnic issues and political changes," said Ko Htin Kyaw, a dissident who was arrested in 2007 and freed in an amnesty this month.
(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Tim Pearce)