By Daniel Ten Kate
The U.S. welcomed Myanmar’s invitation to observe April 1 by-elections that will include former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi while cautioning that the voting process falls short of international standards.
Myanmar this week invited teams from 25 countries and the European Union to monitor the special elections for 48 seats in the 664-member Parliament, according to Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The U.S. will coordinate its efforts with other nations, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
“This is a good first step,” she said in Washington yesterday, according to a transcript. “Burma hasn’t allowed international observation before, but it does fall short of international complete transparency on an election, and we hope they’ll continue to keep the system open, and open it further.”
U.S. and European Union policy makers are looking to the April 1 ballot as a test to determine whether to lift sanctions in place for more than two decades on the country formerly known as Burma. President Thein Sein has released hundreds of dissidents, sought peace with ethnic groups and taken steps to open Myanmar’s economy since taking power a year ago.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon commended Myanmar’s leaders for allowing international election observers and offered assistance to provide a credible outcome.
“This is the right way, toward the right direction,” he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur today. “I am encouraged by the recent developments in Myanmar toward greater participation in democracy and greater freedom of movement and speech.”
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party is running for all the seats vacated by parliamentarians who were appointed to Cabinet posts or other executive positions in Thein Sein’s government. It boycotted a 2010 election that ended more than five decades of army rule.
Myanmar invited the Asean secretariat to send five observers accompanied by three journalists, the bloc said in a March 20 statement. Other countries would be able to send two parliamentarians and three reporters, it said.
Myanmar’s move toward greater democracy is “irreversible” and the government is confident the by-elections will be “free and fair,” Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said in a speech in New Delhi on Jan. 25.
The U.S., Canada and the U.K. condemned the 2010 elections, with President Barack Obama saying they “were neither free nor fair.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December and laid out a road map for lifting sanctions.
“We are committed to a free, fair and transparent process,” U.S. special envoy Derek Mitchell told reporters in Yangon on March 15. “We see this as a critical moment and a marker toward building trust and confidence on the road toward democracy.”
U.S. sanctions ban imports, restrict money transfers, curb aid money, freeze assets and target jewelry with gemstones originating in Myanmar. The EU has lighter restrictions, including a ban on weapons sales and imports of minerals.
The sanctions have left Myanmar dependent on neighbors India, China and Thailand, which have poured more than $25 billion into ports, power plants, and oil and gas pipelines. India last year approved plans for Oil & Natural Gas (ONGC) Corp. and GAIL India Ltd. (GAIL) to invest $1.3 billion in a natural gas project.
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