Burmese authorities have taken a big political step, announcing they will allow foreign election monitors into the country to observe the all-important by-elections on April 1.
President Thein Sen made his decision known while in Cambodia, saying foreign observers would be allowed in from each of the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its dialogue partners that include Australia, China, the European Union, Russia and the United States.
Additionally, Naypyidaw has indicated it will allow some journalists into the country to cover the polls, but only those from select state-owned media, like Britain’s BBC. Independent journalists applying for visas in places like Bangkok, meanwhile, have struggled to obtain the correct paperwork.
Forty-eight seats will be contested in a series of polls that are expected to result in a series of victories for Burma’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).
The NLD won the 1990 election with a landslide victory, but was never allowed to take power.
If successful, the elections will go a long way towards dispelling fears and cynicism in the West about Naypyidaw’s efforts to normalize the country’s relations with the outside world by shifting power from the military to a nominally civilian government. Burma hopes to bring an end to crippling economic sanctions.
The decision to allow monitors was described as encouraging by the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. However, allegations of fraud have already surfaced, with electoral authorities charged with favoring candidates supported by Thein Sein. There have also been claims of vote buying and that the names of dead people have been found on electoral rolls.
The by-elections are designed to clear up anomalies and fill 48 seats left vacant in the 650-seat parliament after the 2010 elections, which resulted in Thein Sein and his Union Solidarity and Development Party coming to power.
Suu Kyi and the NLD boycotted that poll, which was branded neither free nor fair, not least because 25 percent of all seats were reserved for the military. Only North Korea praised the poll.
In Cambodia, Thein Sein made a point of asking Prime Minister Hun Sen for advice on handling poll monitors. Hun Sen is a popularly elected leader, but his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has previously been embroiled in electoral violence amid alleged vote rigging and intimidation.
Still, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Burma’s acceptance of the international community’s call for independent election observers had set a good precedent.
“We have repeatedly encouraged the Burmese Government to ensure these by-elections are free and fair, and this is an encouraging start,” Carr said. “There has been major progress in Burma over recent times. We’ve witnessed remarkable change in Burma over the past several months.”
That change should continue despite the numerous emerging flaws.