YANGON — Myanmar will allow about two dozen poll observers from its Southeast Asian neighbours to visit the country for next month's closely watched by-elections, the ASEAN regional bloc said Tuesday.
The April 1 polls, which will see Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stand for a seat in parliament for the first time, are viewed as a key test of the military-backed government's commitment to budding reforms.
Myanmar has invited ASEAN to send five observers and 18 parliamentarians to witness the vote, at which 48 seats are at stake, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a statement.
A 2010 election which swept the army's political allies to power was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and intimidation.
Foreign election observers and international media were not allowed into the country for that vote, which was denounced by Suu Kyi's opposition party and Western powers as lacking legitimacy.
But experts believe the regime wants Suu Kyi to win a seat in the April polls to give its reformist programme legitimacy and spur the West into easing sanctions against the country.
Suu Kyi's opposition party cannot threaten the ruling party's majority even with a strong result in next month's vote, but a win by the opposition leader would lend legitimacy to the fledgling parliament.
Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory in an election in 1990, but the then ruling junta never allowed the party to take power.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said allowing ASEAN observers was a good start but it also raised questions about why fellow member Myanmar would not allow in experienced poll monitoring organisations and international journalists.
"ASEAN has been known over the years for holding its fire and deflecting criticism of member countries so allowing ASEAN observers is a good start but it's hardly sufficient," he told AFP in Bangkok.
"Allowing one group in when there is such demand for widespread monitoring raises some issues that they're sort of picking and choosing the people they think are going to give them the least difficult time," he said.
During a visit to Myanmar last week, US special envoy Derek Mitchell stressed that while foreign monitors could provide "an objective eye", it was not up to outsiders to say if the outcome was fair.
"It's actually up to the people of a country in elections to decide whether this is acceptable in terms of being a representation of the popular will, whether it was conducted freely and that they were able, without intimidation, to exercise their right to vote," he said.
UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana has said it is important that Myanmar's election commission ensures the vote is fair.
"The credibility of the elections will not be determined solely on the day of the vote, but on the basis of the entire process leading up to and following election day," he said in his report this month on rights progress in Myanmar.
"It is therefore important that the Union Election Commission seriously address reports of campaign irregularities and restrictions on the ability of political parties to carry out campaign activities," he said.
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