EU agrees to observe historic Myanmar election

Aung San Suu Kyi [Wikimedia]

The European Union said today (21 August) that it has agreed to send observers to historic upcoming Myanmar elections in an effort to “strengthen democracy” in the former military-run nation.

Myanmar’s 8 November parliamentary vote will be the first nationwide election to include Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition in a quarter of a century and is seen as a key benchmark of political transition in a country still burdened by the legacy of decades of army rule.

The EU said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar to send observers to monitor the polls, in a statement from Yangon.

“Election observation is an expression of the EU’s wish to support inclusive, transparent and credible elections as part of our policy to strengthen democracy, the rule of law and human rights,” said the EU’s Myanmar ambassador Roland Kobia.

The contingent of observers, comprising more than a hundred experts, will be the first fully-fledged monitoring mission that the EU has launched in Myanmar. A small EU team visited the country for landmark 2012 by-elections that swept Suu Kyi into parliament.

The announcement comes as political tensions bubble ahead of the elections in the nation, which has been ruled by a quasi-civilian government since 2011.

Last week President Thein Sein launched a shock putsch to remove the head of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), with a late night swoop using security forces on the organisation’s headquarters.

Suu Kyi has raised concerns over the removal of Shwe Mann, also the parliament speaker.

He had been tipped as a compromise presidential candidate. Suu Kyi is barred from top political office by the junta-drafted constitution.

The dramatic ousting was seen by observers as a sign that Thein Sein and his military allies were tightening their political grip before the polls.

Earlier this week the United States-based Carter Center, which is also deploying election monitors, said Myanmar had substantially improved the political environment in preparation for the election, but added “significant challenges remain”.

In a report on the polls it sounded the alarm about the likely disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims and warned that the Buddhist-majority nation could see religious tensions flare during campaigning.

Myanmar has enjoyed international applause and the removal of most sanctions for a raft of reforms that has opened the political system to the opposition, loosened the state’s chokehold on the media and invited foreign investment into the long-isolated economy.

But the country has been wracked by several waves of anti-Muslim violence in recent years.

Campaigners have also raised concerns that the government is backtracking on reforms, with the detention of dozens of protesters in recent months.

Since early 2011, Myanmar/Burma has embarked on a remarkable path of political and economic reforms, departing from five decades of authoritarian rule. The government has committed itself to introducing genuine democracy, and some significant steps have been taken towards establishing a more open and equitable society. The reform process focuses on the transition to democracy, economic and social reforms, and efforts to make peace with a number of ethnic groups within the country.

Opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest and her party's return to the formal political process were further milestones in the peaceful transition to democracy and have injected a positive dynamism into political life.

The restrictive measures imposed by the EU on the government were suspended in April 2012 and lifted in 2013 (apart from the arms embargo), in order to welcome and encourage the reform process.

In July 2013, the EU reinstated Myanmar/Burma's access to the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), which provides for duty-free and quota-free access for the country's products to the European market.

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