Burma will next month stop its newly-introduced visa-on-arrival scheme two months prior to controversial elections.
The move, due to come into play on 1 September, means that foreigners looking to visit the country will have to apply for visas at local embassies, which can take weeks to process and are heavily vetted by Burmese authorities.
The visa-on-arrival scheme was introduced in May this year in an attmept to boost tourist numbers – total tourism arrivals in Burma during the fiscal year 2009-2010 stood at 300,000, up from 255,288 a year earlier. But the sudden change is being widely seen as an attempt by the ruling junta to block foreign media and observers from entering before and during the elections, slated for 7 November.
The country’s Election Commission (EC) has ruled out the possibility of allowing monitors in to observe the voting, while Burma already has some of the world’s strictest media laws and is likely to tighten the clamp on foreign and exiled journalists seen to be critical of the polls.
“We think the real motive for this measure could be to prevent outside reporters and monitors from entering the country ahead of the 7 November elections,” a private tour operator told Reuters.
Burma’s so-called visa ‘blacklist’ is notorious among foreign media, activists and aid workers, with reporters known to be critical of the junta regularly banned from entering.
The visa furore peaked earlier this month after the UN’s special rapporteur to Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, was denied entry, seemingly as a result of a report he recently issued to the Security Council calling for a UN investigation into possible war crimes in the country.
In the aftermath of cyclone Nargis in May 2008, the Burmese government also denied entry to foreign aid workers, claiming that the military generals had the situation under control. Offers of overseas aid were also initially rejected, and hundreds of Burmese citizens involved in the post-cyclone relief work have been jailed.
Reporters were also banned, and a week after the cyclone, Burma’s leading state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper led with a story on the “despicable” reporting of the cyclone by foreign media, under the title ‘The enemy who is more destructive than Nargis’.