Myanmar's first elections in 20 years to be held Nov 7, military government says

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's ruling junta set Nov. 7 as the date for the country's first election in two decades, but made no concessions to critics who say the rules favor the army and its allies and bar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from taking part.

The announcement renewed international calls for urgent changes allowing a free-and-fair vote. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy already announced it was boycotting the polls and other parties are wary of participating.

Friday's brief election-date announcement by the Election Commission was carried on state TV and radio.

"Multiparty general elections for the country's parliament will be held on Sunday Nov. 7," said the announcement, which called on political parties to submit their candidate lists starting Monday through Aug. 30.

The elections are part of the junta's "roadmap to democracy," a seven-step program which it says will shift the nation from almost 50 years of military rule in Myanmar, also known as Burma. But critics charge the rules and army-guided constitution are meant to perpetuate the military's commanding role in politics.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday called on Myanmar's authorities to release all remaining political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, "so that they can freely participate in the political life of their country," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

Ban reiterated his call on Myanmar's leaders "to honor their publicly stated commitments to hold inclusive, free and fair elections in order to advance the prospects of peace, democracy and development for Myanmar," Nesirky told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the last elections in 1990. But the junta refused to honor the results and has kept the Nobel laureate Suu Kyi locked away, mostly under house arrest, for 15 of the past 21 years, ignoring worldwide pleas for her freedom.

The NLD and others said the election date would not allow sufficient time for campaigning, which cannot officially begin until the junta announces a campaign period.

"Without freedom of media or expression, the elections cannot be either free or fair," NLD party spokesman Nyan Win said.

Election laws passed ahead of the voting have been criticized as undemocratic by the international community. They effectively bar Suu Kyi and other political prisoners — estimated at more than 2,000 — and members of religious orders from taking part in the elections. Suu Kyi's party was also automatically disbanded under the laws for refusing to register for the elections.

Strict rules for campaigning bar parties from chanting, marching or saying anything at rallies that could tarnish the country's image.

"For these elections to have any credibility, the regime must allow a free and fair campaign and polling process; release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and instigate an inclusive dialogue with the full participation of all opposition and ethnic groups, towards genuine and lasting national reconciliation," Britain's foreign ministry said in a statement.

The United States holds a similar position. After visiting with Myanmar officials in May, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell said the junta's unwillingness to compromise and reform the electoral process led Washington "to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy."

With the NLD out of the race, it appears likely the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party will get the most votes. The USDP was set up and supported by the generals since 1993. It has unrivaled access to funds, a nationwide presence, and a claimed official membership of tens of millions.

The only other party with widespread organization and sufficient funding — but little popular appeal — is the National Unity Party, descendant of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party that ruled under late strongman Ne Win, who held power until 1988.

Out of 40 new political parties, all but four or five are almost unknown. Many will have trouble raising the necessary expenses, which include a 500,000 kyat ($500) for each candidate, more than half a year's salary for the average schoolteacher.

A total of 498 seats will be contested, while another 166 seats will be taken by representatives of the military. A 2008 constitution adopted under the junta's roadmap reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military and says more than 75 percent of the lawmakers must approve any amendments to the charter.

"I am happy that the government has finally set the date as there had been rumors that elections will not be held this year," said Thu Wai, chairman of the Democratic Party.

However, Thu Wai, 77, a longtime democracy activist and former political prisoner, complained that, "We have very little time for party campaigning and we are short of funds."

The Democratic Party earlier this week protested to the Election Commission that police were intimidating its members.

"Nothing has been free or fair since the start," said Khin Maung Swe, leader of the National Democratic Force. "Despite all the obstacles we are determined to contest the elections."


Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.