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NAYPYIDAW: Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged members of Myanmar’s powerful military on Tuesday to support her opposition party in April by-elections as she campaigned for votes on the regime’s doorstep.

In a sight almost unthinkable until recently, several thousand people turned out each time the National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader delivered a speech in areas on the fringes of the showpiece capital Naypyidaw.

Most people in the crowd appeared to be farm or construction labourers, not government workers or personnel with the “Tatmadaw” armed forces, for whom the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San had a special message.

“Every member of the military should note what my father said. What he said was very simple. He said openly that people should not become the slaves of the Tatmadaw but the Tatmadaw must be the foundation of the country,” Suu Kyi said.

“It’s completely untrue that the NLD is against the Tatmadaw. We welcome them. So I would like to ask them to vote for us,” added the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who spent most of the past two decades as a political prisoner.

With only 48 seats available nationwide in the April 1 polls, Suu Kyi’s NLD cannot threaten the parliamentary majority of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), whose top ranks are filled with former generals.

But the vote will be closely watched as a test of the new quasi-civilian government’s reformist credentials.

It is also the first time that Suu Kyi herself is running for a seat in parliament in the country formerly known as Burma.

While the crowds that greeted Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw were smaller than elsewhere on the campaign trail, the fact that supporters dared to attend at all in the regime’s backyard is testimony to the dramatic changes under way.

They gathered in town fields on the outskirts of Naypyidaw, a sprawling mix of gleaming new parliament buildings, pockets of scrubland, near-deserted wide boulevards and luxury hotels to hear “The Lady” speak.

“We hope she will make life better for us. The main thing is to seek democracy. In previous elections I voted for the lion (USDP),” said farmer Saw Oo.

The opposition’s candidates in the capital, who include the popular hip-hop artist and former political prisoner Zayar Thaw, have a tough battle for votes in the city, which is home to many government employees.

Myanmar’s regime has embarked on a surprising series of reforms since decades of outright military rule ended last year, including freeing political detainees and welcoming Suu Kyi back into mainstream politics.—AFP