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Australian monitors denied visas ahead of polls

The Burmese government has denied visas to two Australian MPs hoping to form part of the country’s election monitoring delegation for Sunday’s polls.

Labour’s Janelle Saffin and Liberal senator, Mathias Cormann, say that Burma’s ambassador in Canberra has confirmed that their visas will not be issued, but did not offer an explanation. This leaves only three journalists to make up the Australian monitoring team.

Saffin, an outspoken pro-democracy activist, told Radio Australia’s Connect Asia that the refusal casts doubt on the entire electoral process.

“Things like this just add to it not being seen as free and fair,” she said. “It was to be the start of a really open process, and situations like this certainly do not help that.”

The news follows President Thein Sein’s widely publicised decision to welcome 159 election monitors from around the world, including the US, Canada and the EU. The national election commission yesterday vowed that elections would be free and fair.

“What I can do for my part is ensure the election law is strictly followed,” Tin Aye, head of the Union Election Commission told reporters in Naypyidaw.

The US and Canada say they are sending a delegation but that the election process will still fail to meet international standards. Earlier this week the Alternative Asean Network on Burma (ALTSEAN) criticised elections laws as “flawed” and described the invitations as “too little, too late.”

Forty-five seats are up for grabs in Sunday’s by-elections, which are considered a crucial test for Burma’s democratic reform process. The EU and US are set to review their sanctions against the former pariah state after they take place.

But the elections have been dogged by allegations of campaign interference, vote-buying and fraud. Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD) has complained about deceased persons appearing on voter lists and legitimate voters being removed, as well as intimidation and campaigning restrictions.

Some analysts argue that transparency takes time and gradual improvements should be welcomed. “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 from the Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections. She was herself deported from Burma on 20 March, allegedly for doing business under a tourist visa.

Most experts predict that Aung San Suu Kyi will take up a seat in Parliament on behalf of her constituency in Kawhmu Township, south of Rangoon. Even if the NLD win all the available seats they will not be able to challenge the military’s dominance in parliament.


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