Huge Myanmar crowds greet Suu Kyi in Mandalay

Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was greeted by the largest crowds of her election campaign so far as she toured the second largest city of Mandalay on Saturday.

Tens of thousands cheered on the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and hundreds of vehicles followed her convoy as it slowly made its way along the route from the airport to the city in central Myanmar.

Despite rainy weather, huge crowds shouting "We love Suu" and waving party flags also gathered excitedly at a township in Mandalay's outskirts waiting for "The Lady", as she is widely known in Myanmar, to arrive and deliver a speech.

Her two-day visit is the latest to various parts of the country as her National League for Democracy (NLD) party prepares for by-elections on April 1 that will see her stand for parliament for the first time.

Her decision to run for a seat, in a constituency near Yangon, is the clearest sign yet of the surprising change taking place in Myanmar since an army-backed government replaced decades of outright military rule last year.

Although the opposition cannot threaten the ruling party's majority, even if it takes all 48 seats up for grabs in April, the by-election is seen as a key test of the new regime's commitment to reform.

Suu Kyi's NLD party won a landslide victory in an election in 1990, but the then-ruling junta never allowed the party to take power.

The next election 20 years later swept the army's political allies to power but was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and by the absence of Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time and released a few days later.

The regime has since welcomed her party back into the mainstream as part of its reforms, which have also included the release of hundreds of other political prisoners and the signing of ceasefire deals with ethnic rebel groups.

Western countries have begun to ease sanctions on Myanmar in response to the the recent promising steps and they are expected to further relax restrictions if April's polls are free and fair.

In a speech by videolink to Canada this week, Suu Kyi thanked countries that maintain sanctions on Myanmar, saying they were aiding its transition to democracy and urging supporters of reform to remain vigilant.

Last week she hit the campaign trail in the northernmost state of Kachin, where she appealed for unity among the country's disparate ethnic groups and called for an immediate end to conflict between the regime and Kachin rebels.

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