YANGON — Myanmar has postponed voting in its conflict-hit far north in closely watched by-elections to be held next month because of security concerns, official media reported Friday.
Fierce fighting between government troops and armed rebels in parts of the mountainous Kachin state near the Chinese border since June last year has displaced tens of thousands of people.
"Because of security reasons there are no conditions to hold free and fair elections," state television said.
Next month's polls, which will see Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stand for a seat in parliament for the first time in a constituency near Yangon, are viewed as a key test of the government's commitment to budding reforms.
Her party's campaign manager Nyan Win expressed disappointment at the decision to indefinitely postpone voting for three of the 48 seats left vacant by politicians who gave up their places to join the new government.
"The election is very important for the system we are building. I really regret that it won't be held at all in Kachin state," he told AFP, adding that he had visited one of the constituencies recently for campaigning.
"I even went to villages there. There was no security problem. I think the government gave security as reason. I don't know whether it's true," he said.
While the new quasi-civilian government which took power last year has signed peace deals with other insurgent groups, several rounds of talks with the political wing of the Kachin rebels have failed to bear fruit.
"The fighting is still happening in some areas in Kachin state almost every day," said Yup Zaw Hkaung, a prominent Kachin businessmen who is acting as a mediator between the government and the rebels.
"There was no improvement yet since both sides met in early March," he told AFP.
Civil war has gripped parts of Myanmar since independence in 1948. An end to the conflicts and alleged rights abuses involving government troops is a key demand of Western nations which have imposed sanctions on the regime.
During a recent visit to Myanmar, US special envoy Derek Mitchell said the violence in Kachin was inconsistent with the government's reformist bent.
"The immediate concern that we have is on the issue of internally displaced persons, who by any definition are innocents caught in the crossfire of conflict," he said, urging the government to enable aid to reach the victims.
Despite the security concerns, Suu Kyi visited two of the Kachin constituencies last month as part of her campaigning. The delay means voting will now be held in April in 45 constituencies elsewhere in the country.
A 2010 election which swept the army's political allies to power was marred by complaints of cheating and intimidation, as well as the exclusion of Suu Kyi and some Kachin politicians.
Since then the new government has surprised observers with a series of reforms, including welcoming Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party back into mainstream politics and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
Suu Kyi's NLD cannot threaten the ruling party's majority even with a strong result in the April vote.
But experts believe the regime wants the pro-democracy leader to win a place in parliament to give its reform drive legitimacy and encourage the West to ease sanctions.
The NLD won a landslide victory in an election in 1990, but the then ruling junta never allowed the party to take power, and instead kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the time since then.
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