Burma is considering allowing foreign officials to observe upcoming by-elections, a “key test” of the country’s commitment to reforms, a top U.N. envoy said Sunday.
The April elections will see pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) taking on the military-backed ruling party for the first since 1990 when the NLD’s landslide victory was not recognized by the military rulers at that time.
"I must stress 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," U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana said at a press conference at the end of his six-day fact-finding visit to the country.
“I was informed that the use of international observers was under consideration” in talks with Burma’s Election Commission, he said.
Burma rejected international bids to send observers in November 2010, when historic elections brought a new, nominally civilian government to power, but were criticized by international rights groups as not free or fair.
"The upcoming by-elections on 1 April will be a key test of how far the government has progressed in its process of reform," Quintana said, referring to a series of democratic reforms President Thein Sein’s government has embarked on since March, including releasing political prisoners, easing censorship laws, and signing ceasefire deals with ethnic rebels.
"It is therefore essential that they are truly free, fair, inclusive, and transparent,” he said.
During his visit, Quintana met with the newly established National Human Rights Commission, ethnic representatives, and Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party boycotted the 2010 elections.
He welcomed a "continuing wave of reforms," but cautioned that further changes were needed before concrete progress is guaranteed.
"Serious challenges remain and must be addressed. There is also a risk of backtracking on the progress achieved thus far,” he said.
Quintana, who will submit a full report on his trip to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March, also visited political prisoners held in the notorious Insein Prison and stressed that remaining political prisoners should be freed.
"The government should release all remaining prisoners of conscience without conditions and without delay," he said.
International rights groups and Western nations have long made the release of political prisoners, along with fair elections, a precondition for the lifting of sanctions on Burma.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.