Calls for Fair Election

A U.S. envoy’s visit highlights lingering issues amid Burma's reforms.

assk-mitchell-305 U.S. envoy Derek Mitchell (l) and Aung San Suu Kyi (r) after their meeting in Rangoon, March 14, 2012.
Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has raised concerns about the fairness of upcoming elections in her meeting Wednesday with a visiting U.S. envoy, the two said, as the envoy met with Burmese officials and activists to assess the country’s democratic transition.

“We are having some problems … so we would very much like the world to watch what is going on, to ensure that the elections are everything they should be,” Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters after her meeting in Rangoon with U.S. special envoy Derek Mitchell.

The Nobel peace laureate and head of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party is running for one of 48  parliamentary seats up for grabs in April 1 by-elections.

“We hope that these [elections] will be fair and free and acceptable to all concerned,” she said.

The NLD has had trouble getting campaign venues and has raised complaints about voting lists containing names of dead people, sparking concerns about election fraud.

“We did discuss them. It is a concern in any election,” Mitchell said of the voter lists.

Mitchell, the first U.S. special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, said that he had raised concerns about the election in “productive, candid discussions” with officials in the capital, Naypyidaw.

“We were clear in private and will be in public that the issue of a free, fair, and transparent election is very important to us, in terms of demonstrating, in tangible terms, the commitment to democracy that they have assured us they are on the road towards,” said Mitchell, who is on his sixth trip to Burma since September.

April 1 polls

The U.S., along with the European Union and other governments, is considering gradually lifting sanctions on Burma as the nominally civilian government embraces reforms following decades of harsh military rule.

President Thein Sein's government hopes lifted sanctions will spur economic development.

But Burma is not allowing international observers to monitor the polls.

“They had heard from many different sources, including ASEAN and the United States and others, that it would be a good faith and reassuring gesture of commitment. But there were no assurances [about international observers] from the [election] commission,” Mitchell said.

He said that the international community will nevertheless be “watching very closely,” as the elections are an “important moment for transition.”

The NLD had boycotted Burma's general election in November 2010, saying it was not free or fair, but agreed to rejoin the electoral process after Thein Sein’s government began implementing reforms.

The NLD is contesting 47 of the 48 seats which have been vacated by lawmakers appointed to government posts.

Even if the NLD wins all the seats, the legislature will still be overwhelmingly dominated by the military and pro-military parties.

“Even if we win only 47 seats, we can still do a lot,” Aung San Suu Kyi said.

She said her party’s main issues once in office will be the rule of law, ending ethnic conflict, and amending the 2008 constitution.

“It’s about what we really can do from within the legislature,” she said.

Political prisoners

Mitchell also raised the issue of political prisoners during meetings in Naypyidaw, prominent activist Ko Ko Gyi said.

Mitchell told him that he and President Thein Sein had discussed getting the government to release remaining political prisoners based on the list compiled by the U.S. embassy in Rangoon.

“As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has already been released, and many political prisoners were released in January and no problems have occurred so far, it is possible that they will release the rest of the political prisoners,” said Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generation Student Group, which led a 1988 uprising.

After Thein Sein’s government released political prisoners in January, the U.S. administration announced it would restore full diplomatic relations after 20 years without an ambassador in Burma.

Ethnic conflict

Meanwhile, Burma’s ongoing conflict with ethnic minorities could also threaten its warming relations with the U.S. and other countries.

In northern Burma, Kachin refugees are unable to return to their homes because government troops are occupying their villages, aid workers said Wednesday.

Armed clashes between Burmese government forces and the Kachin Independence Army began last June, but have escalated into large-scale conflict since the beginning of the year, despite efforts by both sides to initiate a ceasefire agreement.

"Some government troops are occupying the villages of the refugees or in surrounding area, and so the villagers dare not go back to their villages,” said Mary Aung, from a Kachin humanitarian group.

“Tens of thousands of refugees are spreading in Kachin and Shan states due to the fighting between the Kachin Independence Organization and government troops,” she said.

Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Nyan Win Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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