Diplomats snub election booth 'tours'

European diplomats in Rangoon are rebuking offers to visit polling stations during Burma’s elections tomorrow, claiming the strict rules surrounding the inspections have forced them to withdraw.

British, German, French and Italian diplomats yesterday issued a statement on behalf of the EU declining to take part in the visits, which British Ambassador Andrew Heyn earlier dismissed as a “choreographed tour”, AFP reported.

Selected polling stations in Burma have been told to expect visits from diplomats and local representatives of international news agencies, while the majority of domestic reporters are banned from going within 50 meters of the ballot box. It was unclear at the time of writing whether representatives of other missions would be attending the tours.

Foreign journalists and election monitors have been forbidden from entering the country to observe the polls, which critics claim are a cynical exercise aimed at putting a civilian facade on continued military rule. Burma’s election commission chief, Thein Soe, has said that the presence of foreign media is unnecessary when diplomats in the country could perform the same scrutinising function.

He has also claimed Burma, which last held polls in 1990, has “abundant experience in holding elections”. Foreign representatives of international news agencies have been allowed to remain in the country, though they will be expected to accompany diplomats on the mandatory tours decried by Ambassador Heyn.

Somsri Hannanuntasuk, director of election watchdog Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), said she was unsurprised the diplomats were shunning the visits. “If I was them, I would decline too,” she said.

Election observers needed full access to every aspect of the polling process, said Somsri, whose own organisation has been denied permission to observe the elections. “You have to understand the process and you have to have knowledge about observation. And you need freedom: freedom of movement, freedom of expression.”

There have already been numerous accusations of electoral fraud in the polls, particularly with regards advance voting. Merely observing voting at selected polling stations would not allow observers to judge if elections were free and fair, Somsri said.

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