YANGON — Myanmar's ruling junta will appoint a body to oversee the country's first elections in two decades, state media said on Tuesday, sparking anger from rights groups at new laws for this year's polls.
State-run newspapers published the details of the first of five long-awaited laws governing the historic vote, which is expected in October or November, although the military regime has still given no firm date.
The last elections, in 1990, were won by Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) but the junta annulled the results and has kept her under house arrest for 14 of the intervening years.
After the government enacted the new laws on Monday, state media Tuesday printed the two-page text of the first of the new edicts, the "Union Election Commission Law," signed by junta supremo Senior General Than Shwe.
The law will "form a union election commission to supervise the practising of the Union of Myanmar people's rights to elect or stand for election as well as the political parties," the text said.
But it said that the junta, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), would itself appoint the commission, which will have at least five members.
All members must be over 50 and "shall be deemed by the SPDC to be an eminent person, to have integrity and experience, to be loyal to the state and its citizens and shall not be a member of a political party".
The commission would have the "final and conclusive" say on all electoral matters, it added.
Critics say the elections are a sham designed to legitimise the ruling generals' grip on power while Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi languishes in detention. Her house arrest was extended by 18 months in August.
"It obviously does not bode well for the credibility of the elections," activist Debbie Stothard, a Bangkok-based activist and coordinator of the ALTSEAN-Burma (Myanmar) network, said of the electoral commission laws.
A Myanmar official said the date for this year's polls was expected to be set by the election commission, not by the government.
"I think that the election commission will have to announce the election date as it is their duty to hold elections. We cannot say anything right now except to wait for the election commission," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Another official said that political parties "will get about six months to lobby for elections after election laws come out."
But activists pointed to the fact that the commission will be able to postpone and abolish "elections of the constituencies where free and fair elections cannot be held due to natural disaster or due to the local security situation," the law said.
This provision could be used to cancel elections in border areas where the government is still fighting its decades-long campaign against ethnic minority rebel groups, they said.
"Basically, the laws will formalise what is already a repressive system leading up to the election," said David Mathieson, a Myanmar expert at Human Rights Watch.
The NLD has not yet said whether it will participate in this year's promised elections, saying it will wait until it sees the full details of all the election laws.
Details of the law for the registration of political parties are expected to be released on Wednesday.
A new constitution agreed in a May 2008 referendum, just days after a devastating cyclone that killed up to 138,000 people in Myanmar, effectively bans Suu Kyi from standing in the polls.
It also reserves a quarter of all parliamentary seats for members of the military.
The UN rights envoy to Myanmar said after visiting in February that the polls would be neither fair nor free if Suu Kyi and another 2,100 political prisoners were kept in detention.
Than Shwe warned citizens in January to make "correct choices" at the elections, without elaborating.
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