Myanmar invites international election observers

Agence France-Presse
Observers from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been invited for the April 1 polls, allowing international scrutiny of polls seen as a major test of its reform credentials

YANGON, Myanmar (AFP) – Myanmar has invited US, European and other observers for by-elections next month, an official said Wednesday, March 21, allowing international scrutiny of polls seen as a major test of its reform credentials.

The vote, which will see Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stand for a seat in parliament for the first time, comes a year after a quasi-civilian government took power following the end of decades of outright military rule.

Observers from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been invited for the April 1 polls, a Myanmar government official who did not want to be named told AFP.

“It will be up to the countries whether they send people from overseas or inside Myanmar,” he said, without specifying how many monitors would be allowed.

The US embassy in Yangon welcomed the move.

“This is encouraging to see that they have taken this step. Clearly we feel the elections are important for this country’s reform process,” said embassy spokesman Mike Quinlan.

But he said reports of irregularities in the voting process and cases of alleged intimidation also needed to be addressed.

“Having observers is one step, but to have a free and fair election there really should be no violence and intimidation as well,” he said.

There was no official reaction from the European Union, but an EU official in Bangkok who did not want to be named said that at least six months of preparations were usually needed for an observation mission.

A 2010 election in Myanmar which swept the army’s political allies to power was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and intimidation.

Foreign election observers and international media were not allowed into the country for that vote, which was denounced by Suu Kyi’s opposition party and Western powers as a sham.

Since then the regime has surprised observers with reforms including welcoming the opposition back into mainstream politics, signing ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebels and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.

Suu Kyi’s party cannot threaten the ruling party’s majority even with a strong result in next month’s vote to fill 48 parliamentary seats.

But experts believe the regime wants the pro-democracy leader to win a place in parliament to give its reform drive legitimacy and encourage the West to ease sanctions.

“It is in the interest of the government that the election is free and fair, so it is only logical that there are some observers,” said Myanmar expert Aung Naing Oo with the Thailand based think-tank Vahu Development Institute.

“It is important for a country like Myanmar to get used to complaints in the election, to get used to cheats, to get used to monitors coming in, and to get used to the election commission doing its job,” he added.

Suu Kyi’s political party on Monday decried what it described as “unfair treatment” by the authorities ahead of the by-elections, saying voters in one village had been forced to attend a meeting of the ruling party.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) also said that in the constituency of Kawhmu near Yangon, where Suu Kyi is standing, the names of hundreds of dead people were found on the voter list.

The NLD won a landslide victory in an election in 1990, but the then ruling junta never allowed the party to take power, and instead kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the time since then.

She was released from her latest stretch in detention just days after the 2010 vote. – Agence France-Presse

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