BANGKOK, 22 March 2012 – The Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) noted that while it is a step in the right direction, Myanmar’s decision to allow international observers comes too late, and with too many restrictions.
Media reports this week have rightly lauded Myanmar’s decision to invite select international election observers for the by-elections being held on April 1. This move is yet another reason for optimism in a country that is showing signs of increasing democratic openness.
It is regrettable therefore that the invitations, which included the United States, the European Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), come less than two weeks before election day. As Myanmar authorities know, an effective election observation mission requires significantly more time for planning and preparation. Unfortunately, even if observers were to arrive today, they would have already missed more than three quarters of the campaign. ASEAN says that their observers have been asked to arrive only three days before the election.
Also, since the invitations restrict governments to only two observers, or five for ASEAN, countries are unable to assemble the team that is required for a thorough and coordinated assessment. With by-elections in 48 constituencies across the country, effective election observation demands the well coordinated effort of a professional election observation team. We do not yet know the extent to which those invited to observe will be given free and open access to the electoral process.
Furthermore, Myanmar has still not invited trained international civil society observers, be they from Asia or elsewhere, to observe and provide an objective 3rd party perspective. On Tuesday, the Myanmar authorities asked Somsri Hananuntasuk, Executive Director of ANFREL, to leave the country because she had entered Myanmar on a tourist visa. Yesterday, other members of her group were likewise asked to return to Thailand. All were inside Myanmar to try to meet with the Union Election Commission and submit a letter requesting formal accreditation for an observation mission, as well as to share election experiences from the rest of Asia with local groups.
While it is too late for any observation mission that meets international standards, ANFREL urges the government of Myanmar to allow full access for those observers it has invited as well as for local observer groups. Myanmar’s recent progress on democratic reforms has been very encouraging, but much remains to be done. Ms. Hananuntasuk said “if the government of Myanmar wishes to hold truly free and fair elections as it claims, it must accept international standards which include independent election observation.”