Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on Sunday for changes to the military-drafted constitution in 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 people lined the roads shouting "Long live mother Suu" as her motorcade moved through the rural coastal region of Dawei about 380 miles south of her home city, Yangon, the main business center.
The trip, only her fourth outside Yangon since her release from years of house arrest in November 2010, demonstrates the increasingly central role of the Nobel Peace Prize 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.
Although well known in the country, the NLD has had limited real political experience. It won by a landslide a 1990 election, a year after Suu Kyi began a lengthy period of incarceration, but the then-regime 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.
Suu Kyi's address on Sunday offered the most extensive detail yet of the policies she would bring to parliament.
In particular, she said she wanted 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 one-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."
She also said fighting between government soldiers and ethnic-minority rebels had to be resolved. There has been heavy fighting recently in Kachin state, but rebellions have simmered in many other regions since independence from Britain in 1948.
"Diversity is not something to be afraid of -- it can be enjoyed," Suu Kyi said.
Although she has not begun to campaign formally for the April 1 by-elections, the speech outside her office to supporters waving party flags and wearing T-shirts showing her face felt like a campaign stop.
"She's becoming more and more explicitly political and talking about the importance of policies," said a diplomat in the crowd. "I think it is the best speech I have heard from her."
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 the country of an estimated 60 million people, one of the last frontier markets in Asia.
Myanmar is also at the center 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 gives rural voters a rare glimpse of the 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.
But many of the same generals who dominated the junta now lead a government 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.
As a result, this trip was very different from one last July 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.
Suu Kyi said at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last week that Myanmar had not yet made its "great transformation," but the elections in April could bring that point closer.
Many believe the turning point for Suu Kyi came on Aug. 19, when she and President Thein Sein met in the capital, Naypyitaw. The president has since repeatedly urged parliament to pursue reforms, while Suu Kyi has voiced support for his government.
Many Burmese speculate that a senior government role, possibly even a cabinet post, awaits Suu Kyi, the daughter of assassinated independence hero Gen. 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 aging activists. And there are questions over how much influence it can wield in a year-old parliament stacked with military appointees and former generals.
However, her supporters say her presence would bring a powerful pro-democracy voice to a chamber where many members are still reluctant to speak their minds.
"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 Robert Birsel)