Myanmar: Country wants ASEAN, US and EU observers at by-elections; army accused of human rights abuse

Updated On: Mar 21, 2012

Myanmar’s government has taken a step forward by inviting ASEAN member states to its upcoming by-elections. Shortly after, it also sent out invitations to EU and US delegates. However, on the downside, the Burmese military has recently been accused of violating human rights.

ASEAN, US and the EU in Myanmar’s by-elections

The ASEAN regional bloc announced yesterday that Myanmar has invited a total of 23 delegates from ASEAN, including two MPs from each member state, to observe its April 1 by-elections. Media representatives from these states will also be welcomed. The move is one of the many made by the military-backed government to ensure that the elections will be as free and fair as possible. It also reflects an effort to involve ASEAN member states in the country’s reform, as Burma is expected to chair the regional bloc in 2014.

Shortly after the abovementioned announcement, Cambodian government spokeman Khieu Kanharith informed the press that Myanmar President Thein Sein had told Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that he intended to invite ASEAN's dialogue partners to the elections. These include Australia, Canada, China, Japan, the US and the EU. Myanmar's decision to allow observers from these countries is a surprise to some, since many analysts had previously believed that Myanmar would only invite ASEAN delegates.

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed this just yesterday, saying that Burma has taken a "good first step...[because] Burma has not allowed international observation before". For the very first time, international journalists will be permitted to
attend the event.The US will be sending two delegates and three journalists to watch the election.

The polls are seen by many as a key test of the Burmese government’s commitment to reform, and will be closely watched. Previously, the once-isolated country rejected international bids to observe its last two elections in 2010 and 1990. The more recent one was called foul by widespread complaints of cheating, intimidation and a lack of legitimacy.

The US, EU and the UN have said that they will only consider the lifting of sanctions if the elections progress smoothly and the government continues to work on economic and political reform. Since the end of last year, the nominally civilian government has released hundreds of political prisoners, signed ceasefire agreements with ethnic rebel groups, introduced media freedoms and allowed pro-democratic leader Ms. Aung Sun Suu Kyi to run for a seat in the parliament.

UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana has said that “the credibility of the elections will not be determined solely on the day of the vote, but on the basis of the entire process leading up to and following election day.” He pointed out that it is therefore “important that the Union Election Commission seriously address reports of campaign irregularities and restrictions on the ability of political parties to carry out campaign activities.”

Report: Burma invites ASEAN observers for April elections [BBC, 20 March 2012]

Report: Myanmar to allow some by-election observers [AFP, 20 March 2012]

Report: Myanmar will allow US, EU monitors for April vote [AP, 21 March 2012]

HRW: Burmese military has violated human rights

According to a report from the Human Rights Watch (HRW), government troops in Myanmar have murdered, tortured and raped civilians in the Kachin state ever since fighting erupted there in June 2011 between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the military. The HRW estimates that at least 75000 people have had to flee their homes as a result of the war. In addition, the rights group accused the government of blocking humanitarian aid.

HRW Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said that “we should recognize that this is a long process, in terms of reform, and that in fact Burma has in our view barely begun to make the reforms needed to transition from military dictatorship to civilian democratic rule.”

Report: Myanmar army accused of rape, torture: HRW [AFP, 20 March 2012]

Related Article