EU agrees to observe Myanmar landmark election

YANGON - The European Union said Friday that it has agreed to send observers to historic upcoming Myanmar elections in an effort to "strengthen democracy" in the former military-run nation.

Myanmar's November 8 parliamentary vote will be the first nationwide election to include Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition in a quarter of a century and is seen as a key benchmark of political transition in a country still burdened by the legacy of decades of army rule.

The EU said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar to send observers to monitor the polls, in a statement from Yangon.

"Election observation is an expression of the EU's wish to support inclusive, transparent and credible elections as part of our policy to strengthen democracy, the rule of law and human rights," said the EU's Myanmar ambassador Roland Kobia.

The contingent of observers, comprising more than a hundred experts, will be the first fully-fledged monitoring mission that the EU has launched in Myanmar. A small EU team visited the country for landmark 2012 by-elections that swept Suu Kyi into parliament.

The announcement comes as political tensions bubble ahead of the elections in the nation, which has been ruled by a quasi-civilian government since 2011.

Last week President Thein Sein launched a shock putsch to remove the head of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), with a late night swoop using security forces on the organisation's headquarters.

Suu Kyi has raised concerns over the removal of Shwe Mann, also the parliament speaker.

He had been tipped as a compromise presidential candidate. Suu Kyi is barred from top political office by the junta-drafted constitution.

The dramatic ousting was seen by observers as a sign that Thein Sein and his military allies were tightening their political grip before the polls.

Earlier this week the United States-based Carter Center, which is also deploying election monitors, said Myanmar had substantially improved the political environment in preparation for the election, but added "significant challenges remain".

In a report on the polls it sounded the alarm about the likely disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims and warned that the Buddhist-majority nation could see religious tensions flare during campaigning.

Myanmar has enjoyed international applause and the removal of most sanctions for a raft of reforms that has opened the political system to the opposition, loosened the state's chokehold on the media and invited foreign investment into the long-isolated economy.

But the country has been wracked by several waves of anti-Muslim violence in recent years.

Campaigners have also raised concerns that the government is backtracking on reforms, with the detention of dozens of protesters in recent months.