By Andrew R.C. Marshall
MAWLAMYAING, Myanmar (Reuters) - Cho Cho May knows who she will vote for in next month's Myanmar by-elections: the candidate for the party created by the former military junta.
"No need to ask me that question," she says. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) candidate is her boss.
Finding another USDP supporter elsewhere in this normally sleepy river town is harder. When Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the rival National League for Democracy (NLD), is on a two-day campaign tour of the region, Mawlamyaing's streets throng with people waving NLD flags and shouting "Long live Mother Suu!"
Watch Suu Kyi's huge convoy go past -- it includes a truck just to carry the flowers that people give her -- and you wonder how anyone could beat her party at the polls.
But the NLD, which is fielding candidates in all but one of the 48 seats contested on Apr. 1, faces a number of challenges. These include candidates with low recognition, an inexperienced and still-fearful electorate, and a well-funded incumbent whom the NLD alleges is playing dirty.
After decades of military dictatorship, a nominally civilian government last year embarked on a series of dramatic reforms. It has released political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, relaxed media controls and vowed to tackle its dysfunctional economy.
The April 1 poll is the first big test of Myanmar's electoral probity and the popularity of Suu Kyi's rejuvenated party.
The United States and European Union regard free and fair by-elections as a crucial condition for dismantling years of economic and political sanctions against Myanmar.
The current government took power after a 2010 general election that was boycotted by the NLD and widely criticized as rigged.
With just three weeks left till the polls open, the NLD is already crying foul. It has accused the government of hampering its populist campaigning by a sudden ban on the use of sports grounds for political rallies.
Suu Kyi's latest rally on Sunday was held not in Mawlamyaing, but on a scorched field set amid a rubber plantation about 10 km (six miles) from town. The five-thousand-strong crowd arrived on a fleet of trucks, buses and motorbikes.
Suu Kyi has complained of "huge errors" in official lists of voters, which omitted or repeated names, or included those of dead people. In a March 6 stump speech, she railed against political parties that try to "win parliamentary seats by dishonest means" and said that NLD campaign posters in the capital Naypyitaw had been vandalized.
At the rally near Mawlamyaing, Suu Kyi spoke scornfully of political parties who "promise the public this and that," such as new roads and bridges.
"They also promise to provide electricity to the people," she said. "But yesterday I passed through a town where people waited to greet me with candles because they have no electricity."
"The NLD will not give promises it cannot keep," she told the cheering crowd.
Suu Kyi did not name the offending parties, but her campaign manager Nyan Win has been less circumspect. Last month he accused some USDP candidates of "buying votes and applying undue influence" by promising voters infrastructure and electricity upgrades.
President Thein Sein's administration seems torn between avoiding actions that could potentially derail the lifting of sanctions, and reverting to old ways.
Like all political parties contesting the by-elections, the NLD is allowed to record a 15-minute campaign speech to be shown twice on state-owned MRTV. The text must be submitted in advance to be approved by the Ministry of Information.
One paragraph in Suu Kyi's speech, in which she criticized past military governments for "oppressing the people," was cut out, she told the Myanmar-language service of Radio Free Asia on Friday.
"It is unclear whether or not military rule will return," she said in her Mawlamyaing speech.
Suu Kyi, 66, who is vying for a seat in Kawhmu near the former capital Yangon, recently urged reporters to watch the campaign very closely.
"It's more important to monitor what happens during the run-up period, because I'm fairly confident that election day itself will not go too badly," she said.
However, the government has yet to agree to international observers, with President Thein Sein vowing only to "seriously consider" monitors from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-member regional group that Myanmar will chair in 2014.
"WE MUST WIN"
The campaign is not only drawing crowds but accumulating them. People thrilled to glimpse Suu Kyi once will pursue her convoy on motorbikes and in trucks to see her again.
Pick-up trucks heaped with loudspeakers blast out a ubiquitous song which has Burmese lyrics ("Let's stand together with Mother Suu") but is sung in a Country and Western style, complete with the occasional "Yee-haa!"
The other much-played song is an old one lauding her father, the independence hero Gen Aung San.
The party's English-language slogans, seen on posters and T-shirts, range from the philosophical ("We Love Truth Therefore We Love Suu") to the faintly desperate ("We Must Win").
"We simply love her," says Ye Kyaw Thu, 41, a shopkeeper in Thaton, where the townsfolk wait to cheer Suu Kyi on her way to Mawlamyaing. "The whole country loves her."
But love is not enough to dispel the impact of decades of oppression, he adds. "People have been afraid for so long. It is hard to remove that fear completely from their hearts."
The final stretch before Mawlamyaing is lined with singing, dancing and cheering families, many wearing the national dress of one of Myanmar's myriad ethnic groups.
Amid all this celebration, the NLD -- so long a party pared down to a jailed and voiceless few -- looks like the people's party it was in 1990, when it convincingly won the first and only election it has contested. The military junta annulled the results.
But the party's popularity rests heavily on the crowd-pulling stamina of "Mother Suu."
Suu Kyi looks considerably frailer on the campaign trail than in the youthful images that adorn T-shirts and posters, and there are still three grueling weeks left till polling day.
Suu Kyi's health is a concern after she cut short a campaign speech in Mandalay to receive medical attention. Her retinue includes an ambulance and a small army of medics.
Party officials have a reputation for being cagey with journalists, perhaps because their leader's rock-star status guarantees the party effortless media coverage.
The rally outside Mawlamyaing was organized to promote Khin Htay Kywe, the female NLD candidate running for the one available seat in Mon State. Suu Kyi introduced her during a 30-minute speech but the candidate herself said nothing.
"Aung San Suu Kyi is the right person for the country, but behind her is not much," says Khin Shwe, a USDP lawmaker and real-estate tycoon with close ties to the former junta. "But the USDP has already chosen the right people for many seats. After Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD has to choose the right people."
He insists the vote will be free and fair but expects the Suu Kyi's party to win only half the contested seats. "I think it will be 50-50."
The NLD's high-energy campaign in Mawlamyaing contrasts sharply with the Sunday torpor at the USDP headquarters.
"There is no need for the USDP to campaign," says independent economist Khin Maung Nyo. "Even if the NLD win all 48 seats, it is negligible. But I think there will be a big struggle between the NLD and the USDP in the next (general) election in 2015."
In many ways, that struggle has already begun. Suu Kyi's two-day trip to introduce a single candidate in Mon State is part of bigger strategy in the run-up to 2015, says videographer Mon Mon Myat, who is following the campaign for her production company Creative Media House.
"This is not just about winning a by-election," she says. "It's about awakening people politically. And now they're awake."
(Additional reporting by Jason Szep and Aung Hla Tun in Yangon, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)