The lead up to the April 1st landmark by-elections has been marred by widespread irregularities prompting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to concede that the electoral process will be neither free nor fair but vowed to press forward with her candidacy.
The Burmese government allowed 159 international observers to ensure a free and fair election will persuade western countries into easing further sanctions. The belated admission of election observers, only four days before Election Day, has been dismissed as a case of too little, too late.
Moreover, Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) has complained that names of hundreds of dead persons were included on the electoral roll while those of more than 1,300 eligible voters are missing in constituencies close to the capital Rangoon.
Also, questions have been raised over the impartiality of the Union Election Commission (UEC) after the commission restricted NLD campaign’s activities and failed to investigate allegations of abuse, threats, harassment, vote buying, and censorship. The recent disenfranchisement of 200,000 Kachin citizens, after polling stations in the state were closed due to alleged security concerns, is an additional concern raised by campaigners ahead of the Sunday polls.
Suu Kyi is widely expected to win a seat in Burma’s parliament. However, her victory should not warrant a swift easing of sanctions imposed on the military-backed regime. The case has been made that lifting sanctions too soon could undermine incentives for deeper and more fundamental reforms.
The outcome of the landmark polls will add to the ongoing policy debate in the U.S. government over whether Washington should remove or phase out some or all of the sanctions on Burma. The European Union says that free and fair elections will be a major step toward the lifting of sanctions but the bloc will not be rushed by big business into lifting the full range of trade restrictions.
The time is not ripe for a major revision of the current set of sanctions. To avoid stifling nascent changes but still incentive further reform, there is a need for an incremental approach to the removal of sanctions matching evidence of real and substantial progress on issues that the government must address. Stay tuned for an elaborate analysis on the way forward for Burma in the aftermath of elections.