Myanmar shines spotlight on historic election

March 29, 2012 - 8:26 AM
Myanmar The Vote Free And Fair

FILE - In this file photo taken on March 28, 2012, supporters of National League for Democracy stand near posters of their leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the NLD's campaign for the April 1 by-election in Mayangone Township in Yangon. Myanmar has sent out a surprisingly broad guest list for elections Sunday, hoping to showcase its democratic credentials to the world. The by-election is likely to bring opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi into Parliament for the first time, marking a symbolic turning point and raising hopes for a more representative government after a half-century of repressive military rule. (AP Photo/File)

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar has sent out a surprisingly broad guest list for elections Sunday, hoping to showcase its democratic credentials to the world.

The by-election is likely to mark a symbolic turning point by bringing opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament for the first time, an event that would raise hopes for a more representative government after a half century of repressive military rule.

However, with less than 7 percent of the chambers' seats contested, the polling will not shift power away from the military-dominated ruling party. Still, the government hopes foreign observers will endorse the polls to help lift the country's pariah status.

Uncharacteristically, the formerly hermetic country is allowing the U.S. and more than a dozen other countries to send observers to monitor the vote — boosting hopes that this will be Myanmar's freest and fairest election in decades.

Experts caution against setting the bar too high, noting that transparency takes time and that this election is being held on Myanmar's terms.

"Let's not ask if these elections will be free and fair. Those are big words. Let's focus on if they're credible," said Somsri Hananuntasuk, head of the Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections, one of Asia's most respected election watchdogs.

"The country is opening bit by bit. There is progress, but there are still problems," Somsri said.

Take for example this unfortunate irony: Just as Myanmar was making headlines last week for its historic invitation to foreign observers, immigration officials were quietly deporting Somsri and two other monitors from her group. After a week in Yangon, she was greeted at her hotel last Wednesday by 10 immigration officials, who questioned her for an hour, scolded her for entering the country on a tourist visa and then escorted her to the airport.

Events like this are what Suu Kyi has called the election's "bumps and pitfalls." She and her opposition party have alleged fraudulent voter lists with names of dead people, vote-buying, harassment, slingshot attacks that injured security guards and odd inconveniences like a rule effectively barring Suu Kyi from holding campaign rallies in stadiums.

These are echoes of past elections, but there is little question that Myanmar has come a long way in a short period of time.

The country's last general election in November 2010 was universally dismissed as a sham. It was Myanmar's first election in two decades and billed by the junta as a key step in its "roadmap to democracy." There was no surprise that it ushered into power a military-backed government and a parliament dominated by military allies.

The ex-regime ensured it had no contest during that election and kept witnesses at a distance. Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest during the 2010 vote and her opposition party boycotted the election, calling it undemocratic and unjust. Ignoring foreign requests to send election monitors, authorities gave Yangon-based diplomats a guided tour of select polling stations.

"The 2010 election offered the public absolutely nothing. The people were resigned and extremely unhappy. There was no ray of hope," said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar expert and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.

"Now there has been a shift in the public psyche," Zarni said. "It is the first time in a quarter century that people feel they can express their popular will. This election revives a sense of hope for the country."

The election scene this time is dramatically different. Suu Kyi was set free shortly after the last election and now dominates the political spotlight. Her picture is now allowed in newspapers, her opposition party has hung campaign posters and publicized its platform in state-run media. These and a raft of other reforms have been rolled out at a dizzying pace by the government of President Thein Sein, startling even his staunchest critics.

Suu Kyi's celebrity status has bestowed outsized significance on the by-election, which will fill only 45 vacant seats in Myanmar's 664-seat national parliament.

A victory by Suu Kyi and the opposition would do little to alter the balance of power in parliament but would give her a voice in government for the first time.

In a televised speech Sunday, Thein Sein urged the country to "support the bid to hold free and fair elections." He admitted to "unnecessary errors" in ballot lists and asked voters and politicians to respect "the decision of the people."

This time, the world will be watching Myanmar's election from the inside, and the stakes are high. The U.S. and other countries say the election will be a key factor in their decision on lifting political and economic sanctions imposed against the former regime.

Skeptics, like Zarni, maintain that the sanctions — and Myanmar's efforts to lift them — are the real reason for the government's openness about this weekend's election.

"They're holding a game of political theater with the West," Zarni said. "They want to showcase this election and be on their best behavior so they can get candy from the West. They want the West to lift sanctions."

Myanmar has invited each of its neighbors in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc to send a pair of observers and extended the offer to ASEAN's so-called dialogue partners — Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

U.S. officials and others say the invitation is a step forward but falls short of a full monitoring mission, which takes months of observation to determine if the vote is free and fair.

"We consider they've made progress," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday in Washington. "(We) just don't consider that they have yet reached the international standard for observation."

It is not clear yet what access observers will be given, though there is no indication yet their movement will be restricted, Nuland said. American observers expect to team up with their ASEAN colleagues to ensure as much coverage as possible of the 8,324 polling stations.

Come election day, the foreign dignitaries will find citizen monitors fanned out nationwide, said Thiha Saw, a prominent Myanmar journalist who said the country's long-censored media have official permission "to cover this election extensively."

"We are very excited about this," he said, adding that Suu Kyi's massive popularity means there will be eyes everywhere.

"There are thousands of volunteers who are watching," Thiha Saw said. "There may be some irregularities in far away places, but I don't think they'll go unwatched."

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Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.