Huge crowds gather in Yangon for largest rally by Aung San Suu Kyi's party

YANGON (AFP) - Tens of thousands of supporters of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gathered in Yangon on Sunday (Nov 1) for her party's largest rally so far, a week before the country votes in landmark elections.

Myanmar heads to the polls next Sunday in what observers and voters are hoping will be the fairest election in decades as the nation slowly shakes off years of brutal and isolating junta rule.

It is the first nationwide polls in a quarter of a century to be contested by Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party, potentially tipping the balance of power away from the military and its ruling party allies for the first time in generations, if the vote is free.

Suu Kyi was expected to give one of her final speeches later in the day as electioneering enters its final stretch.

Tens of thousands streamed into the outdoor parade ground next to a Buddhist temple in an eastern district of Yangon, the first major National League for Democracy (NLD) party rally in the heart of the commercial hub.

Roads leading to the ground were clogged with heavy traffic, some cars blasting campaign music, including a popular NLD song featuring local rappers.

Others made their way to the parade ground on foot, many decked in the party's red armbands, T-shirts, hats and flags sporting slogans like "Vote to change" and "Let's vote NLD for real change".

Volunteers distributed water bottles as others shaded themselves from the harsh sun using a sea of umbrellas.

Dozens of NLD youth members lined up near the front of the stage to provide security but there was no visible police presence.

- 'Mother Suu' -

"I love mother Suu. I also want change. I hate this government," 62-year-old Myint Myit Kyi, a retired government official, told AFP.

"Our country will be changed only when she leads," she added.

"She is the best leader who can achieve the best for us," added Cho Nwe Oo, a 50-year-old woman from south Dagon township.

While the NLD is expected to sweep the polls, Suu Kyi is barred by the constitution from becoming president herself.

Myanmar was run for decades by a brutal junta which jailed, killed and exiled dissidents but the military ceded power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011 paving the way to this year's elections.

In recent weeks Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has criss-crossed Myanmar's varied landscape on an exhausting campaign trail, travelling from remote mountainous areas in the country's north to the southern delta regions, drawing large crowds along the way.

Followers hope that presages a decisive victory for the NLD.

But their main rival, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is also brimming with confidence.

It is the former junta's political heir and many members swapped army uniforms for parliamentary seats after a flawed 2010 election and has publicly declared it expects to win 75 percent of votes cast.

The run-up to the polls has been marred by allegations of dirty tricks, complaints over the pre-poll preparations and concerns that significant minority groups are unrepresented and disenfranchised.