Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi greeted crowds of cheering supporters and called for national unity on Sunday as she embarked on her first political trip outside her home city of Rangoon since her release from house arrest nine months ago.
"I hope I don't need to wait several years to make the next trip," the Nobel laureate said in a speech during her one-day visit to the towns of Bago and Thanatpin, about 50 miles north of Rangoon city.
The trip proceeded without incident, despite warnings from the military-backed government in June that any tours could spark riots.
Though the 66-year-old activist made a private pilgrimage to the temple city of Bagan last month, Sunday's trip, billed by her National League for Democracy (NLD) party as a political tour, tested the limits of her freedom.
Traveling in a three-car envoy followed by about 27 more cars of journalists and supporters, she met with supporters and members of the NLD, gave speeches, and opened two libraries.
Her last trip outside Rangoon to meet with supporters, a visit to Depayin in 2003, was marred by what many believe was an assassination attempt against her by groups linked to the military junta. Around 70 of her supporters were killed in an attack on her motorcade and Aung San Suu Kyi escaped harm but was placed under another seven years of house arrest.
Call for unity
Speaking to crowds gathered in Bago, she called for national unity to develop the country.
"We can develop this country only when we all work together. Unity is a strength, unity is needed everywhere and it is needed especially in our country," she said.
She also downplayed signs of a thawing in her relationship with the government, saying it was too early to comment, following two second rounds of talks with Labor Minister Aung Kyi on Friday. The two sides had issued brief joint statements on cooperation after both the meetings.
"I imagine that people are eager to know the details of talks with Minister U Aung Kyi. I am talking about it because I know what is happening in our people's hearts and minds. I do not speak of this in detail yet because there are certain things we have to do first," she said.
"I don't want to give people false expectations. I don't want to give promises without any certainty. Some, including journalists too, criticize that our statements lack detail. True, they do. But when the time comes, they will include the details," she said.
Also on Friday, Burma's Information minister Kyaw Hsan called on Aung San Suu Kyi to re-register her NLD officially as a party, a move that could imply its acceptance of the government's legitimacy and allow it to take part legally in politics.
Although it has been disbanded before the November elections, the NLD has continued to function, apparently without harassment by the authorities.
"If the NLD wants to get involved in politics, it should set up a legal party through formal procedures. Anyhow, the government is doing its best to invite the NLD to its national reconciliation process," Kyaw Hsan said.
Win Htein, an NLD leader, said Aung San Suu Kyi's trip "will test the reaction of the authorities and will test the response of the people."
Aung San Suu Kyi was greeted by hundreds of people lining the roadways and addressed crowds of about 600 in Thanatpin and 2,000 in Bago.
One young woman in Bago explained how enthusiastic the crowd was, with some supporters holding placards saying "We Love Mother Suu."
"She asked those of us holding [the placards] whether it was just something written on the board or if [the sentiment] was real, and the crowd said without rehearsal, 'It's real,'" she told RFA.
Another man in Bago noted the strong support shown for Aung San Suu Kyi relative to that shown for the country's President Thein Sein, who in March became the first civilian president in 50 years of military government.
"I am hesitant to compare but there is a great difference between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's trip and the president's trip. Thousands have come out. There's no need to ask people to come out household by household [as was done for the president's trip]. They come of their own will," he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi's trip to Bago was also quite different from her last visit there in 1989, he noted, with more cooperation from the military government.
"The authorities helped her a lot. Really a lot....The first time she came to Bago, military trucks came in to the crowds where she was giving a speech, and played audio with amplifiers to block her speech. That was in 1989. That incident is now just a fairy tale. They really helped and cooperated [this time]," he said.
Burma's military junta officially gave up power after the November elections that many criticized as a sham.
However, many believe, the government remains under the tight grip of the same generals who stifled political freedom and have been blamed for blatant human rights abuses.
Human rights groups believe there are about 2,000 political prisoners still being held under harsh conditions in prisons across the country.
Reported by RFA's Burmese Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.