YANGON, Myanmar – Campaigning kicked off Tuesday for Myanmar's Nov. 8 general election, which is expected to be the Southeast Asian country's most credible vote in more than a half-century. A long-ruling junta made way for a civilian government more than four years ago, but the military still retains a powerful role, and political and economic reforms have been stymied by persistent ethnic strife and natural disasters. Associated Press writers based across Asia who have covered Myanmar for many years outline the key issues at stake:
FREE AND FAIR?
Despite international monitors, updated voter rolls and greater media independence, the uneven playing field means few view the polls as truly democratic or fair.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is barred from running for the presidency, contends that the voter lists contain "many, many errors" that may leave many of her party's supporters unable to cast ballots. In 2010, millions of "advance" ballots from the military helped guarantee a ruling party victory.
Analysts say that in the tens of thousands of villages beyond the purview of international monitors, residents will tend to follow orders of pro-military village chiefs. Even if Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party swept the election, the military would retain 25 percent of Parliament seats, be guaranteed one of the two vice presidential slots and still have a say in key Cabinet positions.
-Robin McDowell is the AP's acting bureau chief in Yangon.
SUU KYI'S ROLE
Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi's role is the election's central issue. The political prisoner-turned-parliamentarian and 70-year-old daughter of independence hero Aung San believes it is her destiny to deliver democracy to Myanmar. But the constitution blocks anyone with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president — a rule many believe was written with Suu Kyi in mind, since her late husband was British and her two sons have British passports.
But Suu Kyi has spent her career beating the odds, and if the election is relatively fair, her party is expected to do well. The NLD won a 1990 election by a landslide, but the ruling junta ignored that result and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for years. The party boycotted the most recent nationwide election in 2010, but dominated the 2012 by-elections in which Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament.
Suu Kyi has said that if the NLD wins the election, it will amend the constitution, possibly removing the clause preventing her from serving as president. The party has yet to announce an alternate presidential candidate.
-By Jocelyn Gecker, who has covered Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia for nearly a decade.
Amending the constitution without the military's consent, however, is mathematically impossible, thanks to the constitution the generals implemented. It guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament, and requires constitutional changes to be approved by more than 75 percent of that body.
Army commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has said the military is committed to holding a free and fair election and will respect the results.
President Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party serves as a proxy party for the military. It includes senior retired military officers — including Thein Sein himself — as well as members of the business elite.
The USDP is not a solid bloc, because of a divergence of views on the nature of democratic reforms. Neither is the faction of former military men united, as was dramatically illustrated last month, when the USDP ousted its own chairman, Thura Shwe Mann, a former general who served as the No. 3 man in the junta that preceded Thein Sein's government. Shwe Mann, regarded as a reformer, had declared his interest in becoming the next president, and the move against him was seen as showing the army's support for Thein Sein.
-By Grant Peck, who has covered politics in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia since the 1980s.
Myanmar is predominantly ethnic Burmese, but nearly 40 percent of its 51 million people are ethnic minorities, mostly living in border regions where their rebel armies have clashed with government troops for decades.
The minorities have had their own political parties and significant parliamentary representation since the 2010 vote. The USDP and NLD will vie for their support in post-election coalition building.
Long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims, however, are virtually excluded from the political process in the predominant Buddhist country. They were barred from voting this year, for the first time since independence from Britain, and were disqualified as candidates.
Rohingya have a long history in Myanmar, but are considered Bangladeshis by the government. In Rakhine state, where most Rohingya live, their rights are stripped and their movement severely restricted. Since 2012, radical Buddhist nationalists have stoked animosity toward Rohingya, inciting deadly attacks that have forced 140,000 into apartheid-style displacement camps. Just as many have fled to third countries by boat.
The sole Rohingya lawmaker, Shwe Maung, was told he cannot run for re-election because he cannot prove his citizenship, something he says is ludicrous.
-By Robin McDowell
The Asian Development Bank forecasts Myanmar's growth will top 8 percent in this fiscal year, and foreign direct investment may exceed $8 billion. But such data obscure stiff challenges including widespread poverty and unemployment.
Bureaucratic red tape and corruption led the World Bank to rank Myanmar last among 189 countries in terms of ease of starting businesses. But much-needed economic reforms stalled as lawmakers instead enacted religious-related measures to please the Buddhist majority.
"The drift to reform has ceased over the last six months," said Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia's Macquarie University.
Widespread flooding is confounding efforts to build up the rice trade; exports were halted to control prices. Inflation at 8 percent, a weakening of the local currency and lower natural gas prices are other risks recently cited by the International Monetary Fund.
Though private enterprise is blossoming in light manufacturing and tourism, the military and its allies remain retain a powerful role in most industries. Economic reforms will likely limp along, Turnell says, while cronies of the old military regime continue to dominate key sectors.
-By Elaine Kurtenbach, who has reported on Asian affairs from Japan and China since the 1980s and reported on Myanmar's 1990 election.
Wedged between China, India and Thailand, with rich natural resources and great potential for economic growth, Myanmar is strategically vital. While Western businesses hang back, awaiting the election results, Asian neighbors less concerned over backsliding on human rights and other risks are pressing ahead.
China has sought to soften public antagonism over its big natural gas pipeline, dam building and other projects, giving Suu Kyi a warm welcome in Beijing. Thailand, Singapore and Malaysian investors are still leveraging longstanding connections with the old regime to forge lucrative deals in timber and gems.
The U.S. wants to help lead a shift toward democracy and ethnic reconciliation, both to counterbalance China's rising power and to raise its own regional profile. U.S. relations with other Southeast Asian countries are benefiting from eased tensions over Myanmar.
India has a hefty stake in building closer ties with Myanmar, given its role as a gatekeeper for China into the Bay of Bengal and for trade with the rest of Southeast Asia. Thailand has focused on expanding business ties, and also needs cooperation from Myanmar in dealing with Rohingya refugees and other migrants.
All these stakeholders have a vested interest in seeing a stable outcome from November's vote.
-By Elaine Kurtenbach.