Myanmar to allow EU election observers into military bases


European Union observers will be given access to voting on military bases for next month's Myanmar election, an official said Tuesday, a move to bolster oversight of a poll billed as the country's fairest in decades.

The former-junta ruled nation boasts one of the world's largest armies and a quarter of legislative seats are reserved for the military, giving them a de facto parliamentary veto.

Tens of thousands of soldiers are expected to take part in voting at military bases before the November 8 general election, because they are stationed far from their home constituencies.

Observers from a 150-strong delegation will be allowed at polling stations in those highly-restricted bases after EU representatives met powerful army chief General Min Aung Hlaing.

"It was a constructive meeting. This was an area of concern for us," Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the EU's chief observer, told AFP.

The decision "is going to make the vote more transparent and our report more accurate", he added.

Holding an election in Myanmar is a Herculean challenge. The impoverished country stretches from towering peaks in the north to southern tropical beaches, connected by poor infrastructure and blighted by myriad ethnic conflicts and recent devastating floods.

Ben Rhodes, US deputy national security adviser who met President Thein Sein, the army chief and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a two-day visit, said the polls marked a "critical moment" in reforms.

These began in 2011 after a quasi-civilian government took over following almost a half-century of military rule.

At a press conference in Yangon he restated US concerns that "extreme language" aimed at religious minorities could be "potentially destabilising", in a nation that has suffered several waves of anti-Muslim unrest in recent years.

Rhodes said international observers would play a crucial role and access to military voting was important to ensure "that people are confident that the same rules apply to everybody".

The EU wants to ensure the election passes freely and fairly after a flawed 2010 poll -- boycotted by Suu Kyi's party -- propelled the current quasi-civilian government to power.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide at a 1990 general election, only for the country's isolationist and brutal junta to ignore the result and tighten its hold on power.

Myanmar has been gripped by a colourful and boisterous election campaign and the NLD is expected to make major gains.

But many NLD supporters fear the military's old habits will die hard and are on the lookout for signs of dirty tricks in the poll run-up.

Concerns of mass disenfranchisement mounted after millions of the Myanmar diaspora working in neighbouring countries were not registered for advance voting which began late last week.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya from the volatile western state of Rakhine have also lost the right to vote after the government removed temporary identification documents earlier this year.

No major party is fielding any Muslim candidates for the polls following the rise to prominence of hardline Buddhist monks who have stirred religious tension.

There is also a general lack of democratic awareness, with many people never having voted before.

Local activist Lay NaingOo, based in the town of Bago 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Yangon, told AFP up to half of constituents in nearby villages still have no idea what voting -- with its ballot papers, party lists and polling booths -- actually entails.

"If we can't give them that kind of information," he warned, people like that would "lose their votes, their chances and their ability to change Myanmar".

©AFP

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