Buddhism and Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar

Rohingya Muslims: object of Myanmar Buddhists’ enmity. (Photo: EU-ECHO / Flickr)

Rohingya Muslims: object of Myanmar Buddhists’ enmity. (Photo: EU-ECHO / Flickr)

Myanmar is undergoing a state of upheaval and transformation. As of now, the country is experiencing changes on the political, economic and social frontiers.

Amidst such transitions, Myanmar is also witnessing increased cases of religious intolerance. In spite of its rich cultural heritage and legacy of socio-religious harmony, present-day Myanmar is surely not the best place for its religious minorities.

Recently, the government of Myanmar proposed a law that seeks to impose a virtual ban on religious conversions (any case of religious conversion will need prior approval of the state). This proposed law is just one of the many recent ones that are being put into effect to target the country’s religious minorities: there are plans to outlaw interfaith marriages, and also to limit the birth rate among non-Buddhist families residing in Myanmar.

But that’s not all. The worst part is the fact that these discriminatory laws are being backed by radical Buddhist monks (collectively known as the Mabatha), and there have been petitions signed by as many as 1.3 million people calling for elimination of Muslims from the country.

A Historical Perspective

Just like any other religion, Buddhism too has seen its principles being put at stake by its own clerics and clergymen. For centuries, Buddhist sects and monasteries have failed to arrive at a common consensus on various issues, both big and small.

Should a monk’s robe cover both shoulders or just one? Answer awaited.

Also, in spite of Buddha’s non-violent teachings and principles, Buddhist monks are no strangers when it comes to violence and conflict. During the colonial era, several Buddhist monastic orders made it mandatory for their members to engage in armed violence against the Europeans.

As such, politics is not unknown territory for Buddhist monks who claim to have denounced the world. In the period ranging from 1980s to 2000s, many Burmese monks participated in the pro-democracy struggles.

However, after the political transition of 2011, two extremist Buddhist outfits — the Mabatha and the 969 Movement — have dominated Burmese political thought and ideology. Firebrand radical Ashin Wirathu has emerged as the de facto proponent of communal discord. Both the 969 Movement and the Mabatha seem to have one common goal: creation of an exclusively Buddhist state in Myanmar.

Crimes Against Humanity

Back in mid-2012, communal violence took a turn for the worse, when riots broke out in the western state of Rakhine, killing hundreds and displacing over 140,000 Rohingya Muslims. The government simply refused to step in, and even when it did, the authorities blatantly sided with the extremists and essentially rendered the Rohingya people helpless. This showed that anti-Rohingya activities in Myanmar were (and still are) nothing more than a planned religious pogrom being conducted by the Buddhist terror outfits in assonance with the government of Myanmar. More details about the ill-effects of the riots can be found here.

Apart from planned genocide, Buddhist extremist groups also indulge in anti-minority propaganda in the form of economic boycotts against Muslim businesses and false criticism of religions they do not like (which include, apart from other faiths, forms of Buddhism that do not agree with their extremist actions). Of course, Islam is the centre of their hatred: when delegates of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation visited Myanmar in 2013, banners reading “Islam is a faith of animals with uncontrollable birth-rates” were flashed.

Fundamentalism Among Myanmar’s Monks — Exploring The Causes

The question is, if certain sects of Buddhism are engaging in violence, why are they getting away with it? Fundamentalism can be found in any religion: Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam… you name it! But in every religion, the majority of the followers are always against fundamentalism.

But in case of Buddhism, the anti-extremist or moderate voices are too feeble.

The problem is that the average Buddhist is taught, time and again, to think of monks as ascetics who have renounced worldly comforts and are thus immune to human flaws. Even if a monk errs, he is not called ‘corrupt’, but is instead termed as ‘deviant’. The robe of the present-day monk is still equated with the Wisdom of Buddha, even if the said monk is miles apart from the teachings of the Enlightened One. As a result, each Buddhist monk considers himself to be a Pope in his own right — incorruptible.

More importantly, on the practical front, the radical monks serve as handy allies for the pseudo-civilian government of Myanmar. Therefore, even Aung San Suu Kyi, so well known for her pro-liberty credentials, has chosen to be a mute spectator while innocent Rohingya children are being massacred.

A Ray of Hope?

Yet, all hope is not lost. In Myanmar, even though the extremists seem to have the upper edge, there are voices who are trying to protect the country’s secular fabric. Led by monks such as Metta Shin U Zawana, some intellectuals and students are coming forward to question the policies and propaganda of the radical outfits. Bloggers such as Nay Phone Latt have written extensively on this subject.

However, the Mabatha and the 969 Movement are quick to discard the peaceful voices as “echoes of treachery”. When the government’s discriminatory policies against the Rohingya were criticized by women activists, the Mabatha terrorists termed the activists as “traitors”.


Buddha preached that salvation could be attained only if one were to free himself or herself from worldly desires. Universal brotherhood of humankind was the underlying principle of Buddhism in its pristine form.

Unfortunately, modern-day extremist monks of Myanmar are more concerned with ethnic cleansing. Their critics are summarily silenced by the government of Myanmar, and this has left the Rohingya people at the mercy of the terrorist-members of the Mabatha and the 969 Movement.

This is where the international community needs to step in. The Dalai Lama, for instance, should be requested to help spread the true message of Buddhism among the Burmese masses and specifically criticize the extremists for defaming Buddhism.

The actions of the fundamentalists is causing great tension and turmoil in Myanmar (not to mention the fact that it is putting the lives and property of the Rohingya people at stake). If Myanmar actually intends to progress towards true democracy and prosperity, it will have to eliminate the terror groups like the Mabatha and the 969 Movement, and attempt to safeguard the interests of its religious minorities. True development seems impossible as long as terrorists are dominating the Burmese politics and society.

Sufyan bin Uzayr is the author of Sufism: A Brief History and the editor of the Globe Monitor.He writes for several print and online publications, and regularly blogs about issues of contemporary relevance at Political Periscope. You can also connect with him using Facebook or Google+ or email him at [email protected].

Foreign Policy In Focus

Myanmar ruling dents Suu Kyi presidential bid

A parliamentary committee has voted against changing a clause in Myanmar’s constitution that bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

The clause bars anyone whose spouse or children are loyal to foreign countries from becoming president or vice president. Suu Kyi’s late husband and her two sons are British citizens.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party is expected to mount a strong challenge in next year’s general election, with a good possibility of winning, but without Suu Kyi as a prospective president, its backers may flag in their support.

Twenty-six of the 31 members of the committee tasked with recommending changes voted against amending the clause.
The decision by the committee last week was not publicised, but a member who did not want to be identified because he is not supposed to speak to the media confirmed the result of the vote to the AP news agency.

The decision still needs to be endorsed by the full parliament, but a change appears unlikely since the committee members who rejected the amendment are mainly politicians from the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party, which holds an overwhelming majority of the legislative seats.

It is unclear when parliament will take action on the recommendation.

Demand for change

Suu Kyi has said that the current constitution needs to be amended to meet democratic norms and to make elections free and fair.

Her party has been holding rallies to gain public support and convince the military and the government to amend the constitution.

Nyan Win, a spokesman for National League for Democracy, said it was more concerned with amending the clauses in the constitution that govern how changes can be made.

If that can be done, he said, it will not be impossible to change other clauses.

The 2008 constitution was drawn up by the previous military government to ensure its continuing influence.

It gives the military a mandatory 25 percent of parliamentary seats, handing it veto powers over any change in the constitution, which requires greater than 75 percent approval, followed by a nationwide referendum.

Suu Kyi has repeatedly called on President Thein Sein and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing for discussions on amending the constitution, but both have refused.

Parliament speaker Thura Shwe Mann, who is also from the pro-military faction and harbours presidential ambitions, said changes in the constitution must be completed six months before the 2015 polls.

Since coming to office in 2011, Thein Sein has instituted a series of political and economic reforms after almost five decades of repressive army rule.

Suu Kyi’s party rejoined the electoral process after decades of government repression, and won 43 of 44 seats it contested in by-elections in 2012.



MSF deeply shocked at expulsion from Myanmar

Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) has said it has been expelled from Myanmar and that tens of thousands of lives are at risk in the country.

The decision came after the humanitarian group reported it recently treated nearly two dozen Rohingya Muslim victims of communal violence in Rakhine state, which the government has denied.

The Nobel Prize-winning aid group said it was “deeply shocked” by Myanmar’s decision to expel it after two decades of work in the country, the AP news agency reported.

The US said it was very concerned and urged the government to continue to provide “unfettered” access for humanitarian agencies.

“Today for the first time in MSF’s history of operations in the country, HIV/AIDS clinics in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, as well as Yangon division, were closed and patients were unable to receive the treatment they needed,” MSF said in a statement, using the French acronym for its name.

It said it had to close clinics serving 30,000 HIV/AIDS patients, and more than 3,000 people with tuberculosis would not be able to get vital medicine, the Reuters news agency reported.


Myanmar’s presidential spokesman Ye Htut had criticised MSF in the Myanmar Freedom newspaper for hiring “Bengalis,” the term the government uses for the Rohingya minority, and lacked transparency in its work.

He also accused the group of misleading the world about an attack last month in the remote northern part of Rakhine.

The UN says more than 40 Rohingya may have been killed, but the government has vehemently denied allegations that a Buddhist mob rampaged through a village, killing women and children.

It says one policeman was killed by Rohingya and no other violence occurred.

MSF said it treated 22 injured and traumatised Rohingya.

Repeated attempts to reach Ye Htut for comment were unsuccessful Friday, AP reported.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, only recently began to emerge from a half-century of military rule.

Since then, ethnic tensions have swept Rakhine state, raising concerns from the US and others that the bloodshed could undermine democratic reforms.

Up to 280 people have been killed and tens of thousands more have fled their homes, most of them Rohingya.

Since the violence erupted in June 2012, MSF has worked in 15 camps for the displaced people in Rakhine state.

For many of the sickest patients, the organisation offers the best and sometimes only care, because travelling outside the camps for treatment in local Buddhist-run hospitals can be dangerous and expensive.

The aid group has worked to help smooth the referral process for emergency transport from some camps.

Due to increasing threats and intimidation from a group of Rakhine Buddhists who have been holding near daily protests against MSF, the organisation has said its activities have been severely hampered and that it has not received enough government support, AP reported.

‘Deeply troubling’

“We urge the government to continue to work with the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to communities in need and to unsure unfettered access for humanitarian agencies,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.

Democratic Representative Joe Crowley, one of the most prominent voices in the US Congress on Myanmar, also reacted to the reported expulsion.

“It is the responsibility of the Burmese government to protect civilians. This is deeply troubling,” he said in a tweet.

“MSF’s actions are guided by medical ethics and the principles of neutrality and impartiality,” MSF said in its statement read.

“MSF is in discussions with the Government of Myanmar to allow our staff to resume life-saving medical activities across the country and continuing addressing the unmet heath needs of its people.”



Sectarian bloodshed grips Myanmar

Sectarian bloodshed has forced women and children to flee to forests in western Myanmar after Buddhists have killed at least five Muslims.

Security forces patrolled villages on Wednesday in Rakine State, where more than 800 Buddhist rioters torched homes and attacked local Muslims a day before.

“We are doing all of this just out of our desire to protect our own religion, because we heard that a Muslim man in Thandwe abused Buddhism,” one rioter told Al Jazeera.

The violence left at least four men and a 94-year-old woman dead, a police official said.

We are doing all of this just out of our desire to protect our own religion, because we heard that a Muslim man in Thandwe abused Buddhism

Buddhist rioter

Four Rakhine Buddhists were injured in clashes and a fifth was missing, while 59 houses and a mosque have been torched since tensions flared on Saturday, police said.

“The police are merely shooting into the air and not doing enough to prevent the violence,” a resident told Al Jazeera.

President’s visit

The religious bloodshed coincided with President Thein Sein’s two-day tour in the violence-racked area as part of his first official visit to Rakhine state since a wave of violence erupted there last year.

About 250 people have been killed and more than 140,000 left homeless in several outbreaks of inter-religious violence around the country since June 2012, mostly in Rakhine.

In a message to a multi-faith conference, which was carried in state media on Wednesday, Thein Sein lamented “instigations fuelling minor crimes into conflicts between the two communities and two religions”.

The recent unrest has overshadowed internationally praised political reforms and increased pressure on the former military government general, who took power in 2011.

The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about the latest unrest and urged authorities to respond “decisively”, in a statement issued by its embassy in Yangon.

The region is home to the popular tourist destination of Ngapali Beach although no foreigners were believed to have been caught up in the unrest.



Making Myanmar Work

myanmar-burma-logging-trafficking-mining-drugs-opium-governmentOn May 20, 2013, former general Thein Sein became the first Burmese president to visit the White House in almost 50 years. From a pariah state noted for human rights violations under its brutal military regime, Myanmar turned a corner in 2010-2011 with the release of high-profile political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and the installation of an elected civilian government. In a gesture of respect to mark these changes, President Barack Obama became the first American president to refer to the Asian country by its official name, Myanmar, rather than its oft-used name Burma.

During his speech, President Obama praised Thein Sein for taking steps toward instituting a democratic government. “We’ve seen credible elections and a legislature that is continuing to make strides in more inclusivity and greater representation of all the various ethnic groups in Myanmar,” he said. Obama acknowledged, however, that even Thein Sein would concede that his country has taken but the first steps on what will be a “long journey,” and that “there is still much work to be done.”

Inter-communal Violence

The work to be done includes resolving sectarian violence and human rights violations. Much of President Obama’s speech addressed the intense violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. There, beginning in June 2012, Buddhists and Muslims have been locked in a conflict, resulting in nearly 200 mainly Rohingya deaths. About 140,000 have been displaced, with refugees fleeing to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. As a result of years of repression and discrimination, including having been denied citizenship, many Rohingya remain stateless, leaving them especially vulnerable to attacks. Obama noted that inter-communal violence has now spread to other Muslim-inhabited areas of the country.

This complex situation will demand strong negotiations between the government, the opposition factions, and the military. The new Myanmar government must take immediate steps to minimize, if not eliminate, the violence. It also needs to work toward establishing a mechanism that can manage inter-communal conflict as well as all illegal activities. All of these present great challenges for Myanmar’s fledgling democracy due to the low capacity of its state institutions, and the unavailability of properly trained personnel to manage the conflict.

There are economic overtones to the violence, given that some ethnic Burmese complain that ethnic minorities are taking the country’s wealth from “citizens.” Therefore, Myanmar should carefully promote economic development in order to increase social stability in the immediate and long term. As it creates the necessary infrastructure and institutions to manage the conflict, the country can simultaneously develop its capacity to respond to the economic insecurities at the root of violence.


Myanmar still suffers from the rampant trafficking of opium, wood, minerals, and people. In 2012, the United Nations ranked Myanmar—where an estimated 256,000 households participate in the cultivation of opium, which is distributed by more than 50 drug-trafficking organizations—as the world’s second-largest producer of illicit opium. Opium from Myanmar often enters the markets of neighboring countries such as Thailand, Laos, and China. In 2011, police in the Chinese border province of Yunnan seized 13.5 tons of illegal drugs and arrested some 17,000 drug smugglers, many with connections to Myanmar.

Similarly, the participation of corrupt officials and businessmen in the illegal wood trade demonstrates the adverse consequences of underdeveloped infrastructure and governance. Environmental groups assert that Myanmar has Asia’s most extensive intact tropical forest ecosystems and possesses the world’s only remaining golden teak forests. Yet Myanmar is also the largest exporter of timber in Indochina, with teak accounting for 60-70 percent of export earnings from forestry products and generating $ 309.6 million in revenues in fiscal year 2011-2012 alone. Illegal deforestation has reduced the amount of land covered by timber from 57 percent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2005. The environmental advocacy group Global Witness warned in a 2009 report that illegal logging was causing the rapid destruction of Myanmar’s northeastern forests, with most of the timber being smuggled into China’s Kunming province in 2008. In 2005, according to the report, one truck carrying 15 tons of illegal logs crossed the China-Myanmar border every seven minutes.

Another major industry is gem mining, with the vast majority of high-quality rubies on the world market originating in Myanmar. Gem sales provide significant revenue for the Myanmar government, bringing in more than $ 3.7 billion between March 2011 and February 2012. A 2008 Human Rights Watch report, however, revealed that gem mining occurs in deplorable conditions, entailing rampant land confiscation, extortion, forced labor, child labor, environmental pollution, and unsafe working conditions. HIV/AIDS, drug-resistant malaria, and tuberculosis are common among gem miners, it noted.

Meanwhile, human trafficking adversely affects Myanmar’s society at every level. Men, women, and children from Myanmar are trafficked for sexual and labor exploitation in Thailand, China, Malaysia, Bangladesh, South Korea, Macau, and Pakistan. Myanmar is both a source and a transit country for human trafficking. There are no reliable estimates on the number of persons trafficked annually, although a total of 134 trafficking cases were investigated in 2008 involving 203 victims (153 female and 50 male) and 342 traffickers. Fifteen cases were of internal trafficking, and there are likely to be additional, unreported cases in remote areas. Identified cases surely represent only a small fraction of the actual incidents of trafficking, betraying the enormity of the scale of the problem. UNICEF, for example, estimated in 2003 that 10,000 girls were trafficked every year from Myanmar into Thai brothels alone.

These illegal activities are symptomatic of state capacity deficiencies. Myanmar has weak law enforcement agencies and patchy cooperation among member states; insufficient institutional and procedural safeguards against corruption and a lack of cooperation in recovery of stolen public assets; and lacks a strong, independent, and fair justice system at the national level. It also has inadequate mechanisms to support effective cooperation in addressing transnational organized justice.

Myanmar’s weak institutions enable illegal markets to flourish, with criminal activity quickly becoming a regional crisis. Myanmar’s overall development is unlikely to proceed unless these illegal markets can be contained. A judicious government effort to contain this activity would legitimize the government’s authority, increase popular support for democratic reforms, and promote social stability.

Economic Development and State Capacity 

Once the wealthiest Southeast Asian country of the British Empire, Myanmar has declined so severely in economic well-being that the United Nations named it a Least Developed Country in 1987. Much of this decline is due to the failed economic policies of the junta, in power from 1962 to 2011.

During that period, Myanmar’s illegal economy became three to five times larger than its legal economy. Years of mismanagement established a network of crony officials and businessmen that still illegally traffic Myanmar’s natural wealth. The country’s weak capacity promotes the continuation of the old ways and provides a haven for non-state actors to pursue their illegal activities in the country, thereby restraining its transition toward normalization.

One of the main issues that Myanmar will encounter in its pursuit of democracy is the lack of institutions and personnel to adequately address day-to-day issues while implementing decisions issued by an elected president. The lack of middle management forces ministers to attend 10-20 meetings each day, leaving time for little else. Consequently, new reforms are implemented slowly and imperfectly. Moreover, nonexistent infrastructure—such as strong legal, judicial, and tax systems—severely hinders the state’s capability to respond to and properly prosecute illegal activities.

Myanmar should seek expertise from the United Nations, the OSCE, and the European Union in developing middle management. These organizations have a strong and instructive collective history in conflict resolution as seen, for example, in the stability restored after the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. In responding to illegal markets, the authorities should also receive training from Interpol and Europol on their information sharing institutions at the domestic and regional level.

Moreover, it is imperative that the emerging private sector promote and respect these new institutions to fight the illegal markets. Together, these actions could bring economic development and security along with democracy.

Billy Tea is a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.

Foreign Policy In Focus

Myanmar vows to free all political prisoners

The president of Myanmar has promised to release all political prisoners by the end of this year and said he thought a nationwide ceasefire was possible for the first time in six decades.

“By the end of the year there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar,” President Thein Sein told an audience in
London on Monday.

A special committee was reviewing every political prisoner’s case, he added.

Activist had protested his two-day talk with British Prime Minister David Cameron, taking issue with the Asian nation’s human rights record.

About 30 activists from campaign group Avaaz protested outside the British parliament with a banner reading: “Cameron – Don’t let Burma become the next Rwanda”, a reference to the 1994 genocide when hundreds of thousands were killed.

Activists from the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK as well as Human Rights Watch have also urged Cameron to press Sein on the country’s human rights record.

Sein said in a statement released on his website on Sunday that he had disbanded a security force accused of rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in the west of Myanmar, scene of deadly violence between Muslims and majority Buddhists in the past year.

Sein was due to talk trade, aid and democracy with Cameron and his ministers at a time when Myanmar is opening up its oil, gas and telecoms sectors to foreign investors, with further liberalisation likely.

Cameron was under pressure to confront Sein over the treatment of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, but faced a tricky balancing act since he has made it clear he wants to expand Britain’s trade links with emerging economies such as Myanmar.

Cameron’s office said it would provide details of the talks later, and a spokesman said the British prime minister had planned to raise human rights.

Sein, a former military commander, is trying to get the West to help Myanmar’s economy recover from decades of military dictatorship, Soviet-style planning and international sanctions.

Western leaders have praised him for ending the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, releasing some political prisoners, and allowing the opposition to fight an election.

But they want him to further loosen the military’s grip on the mineral-rich state formerly known as Burma before a 2015 presidential election which the British-educated Suu Kyi hopes to contest. Suu Kyi visited Britain last year.

At least 237 people have been killed in Myanmar in religious violence over the past year and about 150,000 people have been displaced.

Most of the victims were Muslim and the deadliest incidents happened in Rakhine State, where about 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live, according to the United Nations.



Religious violence erupts in Myanmar

Myanmar’s government has called for calm after mobs burned down a Muslim orphanage, a mosque and shops during a new eruption of religious violence in the northeastern Shan state.

Authorities imposed a curfew late on Tuesday in Lashio, about 700km northeast of Yangon, after a mob of 200 local residents surrounded the city police station demanding they hand over a Muslim detainee.

Nay Win, 48, a Muslim from a nearby township, was arrested after allegedly setting fire to Aye Aye Win, 24, a Shan Buddhist, earlier in the day after the two had an altercation at a petrol station, Lashio police said.

“He is not from here and we don’t know why he did this,” local resident Maung Win said of Nay Win, on whom police allegedly found two methamphetamine pills.
The woman was admitted to hospital.
“According to witnesses, she was not burned seriously but has injuries on her face and arms,” Sai Sam Min, a member of parliament from Lashio, said.

“We imposed the curfew at 9pm (14:30 GMT) on Tuesday to control the angry mob which included Buddhist monks,” a police station spokesman, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

“A mosque and a religious school and some houses were destroyed by the mob, but there were no deaths or injuries.”

Recent violence

Myanmar’s recent sectarian violence has been partly blamed on the 969 movement, launched in February by an extremist monk in Mandalay named Wirathu, who encourages Buddhists to shun Muslim-owned shops.

“Since the riots in lower Burma, this 969 movement has been sending their people up to the towns in Shan state for a month or two,” Khuensai said.

“They have been trying to stir up trouble for a long time, so this was an opportunity for them.”

There are less than 2,000 Myanmar Muslims living in Lashio, Khunesai said, of the city’s estimated population of about 130,000.

The Lashio incident was the third outbreak of anti-Muslim violence to flare up in Myanmar this year.

On April 30, in Oakkan, about 100km north of Yangon, Buddhists went on a rampage after a Muslim woman allegedly bumped into a monk, breaking his begging bowl.
One Muslim man was killed, and a mosque and 77 houses were set on fire.

In March at least 44 people were killed in sectarian strife in in Meiktila, 450km north of Yangon, where at least 8,000 people, most of them Muslims, were left homeless in riots sparked by an apparent row at a Muslim-owned gold shop.

Deadly unrest last year, mainly targeted at Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state, left about 200 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.



Japan’s Abe in Myanmar on landmark visit

Shinzo Abe, accompanied by a large business delegation, is visiting Myanmar – the first by a Japanese leader in more than three decades as the Japanese attempt to reassert its position as a top economci partner after decades of poor relations with the previous military regime.

The Japanese prime minister has visited Myanmar’s mausoleum, which commemorates the national hero, General Aung San, and is due to meet Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s democracy icon, and the current leader, Thein Sein, in the capital Naypyitaw.

The Japanese business community views Abe’s visit as a sign of reinvigorating ties.

The last Japanese premier to visit Myanmar was Takeo Fukuda in 1977 during the Socialist regime of the late ruler, General Ne Win.

“Japan will cooperate in Myanmar’s reforms with both public- and private-sector assistance,” Abe said before departure, according to Kyodo News agency.

Japanese companies are eager to invest in Myanmar after it started to open up when Thein Sein took office in 2011.

Investment projects

With the US and European Union relaxing sanctions, Japan has moved quickly to capitalise on Myanmar’s resources and its new economic environment without sanctions.

At least 35 Japanese investment projects are under way in Myanmar, the biggest being plans to develop the 2,400 hectare Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Yangon Zone led by trading companies Mitsubishi Corp, Marubeni Corp. and Sumitomo Corp.

Abe is scheduled to sign agreements to provide Japanese grant money for human resources development and to extend the first Japanese government loan to the impoverished but resource-rich country since it cancelled $ 3.58bn in debt in January.

Japan, Myanmar’s largest aid donor, helped clear part of its unpaid debt in an effort to boost Myanmar’s democratic reforms and open ways to resume fresh loans for infrastructure building and major development assistance that will support Japanese business interests in the Southeast Asian nation.

Al Jazeera’s Veronica Pedrosa, reporting from Bangkok on Saturday, said Japan has made no secret of the fact that it want to be the champion of Myanmar development, so there have been some reports that the remaining debt that Myanmar owes to Japan is also going to be forgiven.

“They’re talking about a development aid package worth a $ 1bn, and the introduction of a basic plan for a comprehensive electricity infrastructure for the country,” she said.

She said such an aid package would be significant not only for the people but also for investors “who complain that lack of infrastructure is a huge part of the hindrance to further investment”.

“It is all part of a strategy on the part of Japan - which the US would be supportive of – to  edge out China’s influence in the region,” our correspondent said.

Chequered past

Japan had close ties with Myanmar before the junta took power in 1988, prompting the country to suspend grants for major projects.

Although it scaled back most business activity and cut government aid when the US and other Western nations imposed sanctions in 2003 after the military regime put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, Japan did not impose sanctions on Myanmar.

But with no major development grants or Japanese loans, major Japanese corporations maintained branch offices in Myanmar with minimal business operations during the previous regime, while neighbouring China gradually became Myanmar’s major trade partner and investor after Thailand and Singapore.

Japan’s investments and involvement lag far behind those of China and India, but that is fast changing after the country forgave about half of Myanmar’s more than $ 6bn in debt.

A high-powered delegation of business leaders, including top executives from Toyota Motor Corp, Hitachi Ltd and Sumitomo Chemical, toured Myanmar, also known as Burma, in February and pledged to cooperate in encouraging more investment.

As of late February, Japan was the 11th largest investor in Myanmar, with $ 270m in overall investments, way behind the $ 14.2bn committed by China and $ 9.6bn by Thailand, the top two sources with 33 percent and 23 percent respectively of total foreign direct investment.



Myanmar president set to meet Obama

Myanmar President Thein Sein is set to become the first leader of his country to visit the White House in nearly half a century, in one of the most symbolic US gestures yet to support his reforms.

In a scene that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, the former general will meet with President Barack Obama on Monday and later seek to woo US businesses that see a lucrative market in the former Western pariah nation.

Critics say that Obama’s invitation was premature and takes pressure off Myanmar to address still-alarming abuses such as recent anti-Muslim violence to which security forces allegedly turned a blind eye.

Thein Sein, who took office as a nominal civilian in 2011, surprised even cynics by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, easing censorship and letting long-detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament.

Speaking at the office of Voice of America, Thein Sein said he would tell Obama that the reform path is stable and call for a complete end to the economic sanctions which the United States has mostly suspended.

“Relations have greatly improved thanks to the policies of President Obama,” he told a forum at the broadcaster on Sunday. “For our political reforms, we also need more economic development.”

Preserving independence

The most critical test of reform will come in 2015, when Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections — testing whether the military and its allies would be willing to cede power, potentially to Suu Kyi.

Thein Sein did not budge on the constitution’s allocation of 25 percent of seats in parliament to the armed forces, saying that the military had preserved Myanmar’s independence.

“It is a defensive force. You cannot deny their place in politics,” he said.

The army seized control of the country then known as Burma in 1962, ushering in decades of isolation.

Military ruler Ne Win in 1966 was the last leader to visit the White House, where he met president Lyndon Johnson.

Obama has made Myanmar a key priority and visited in November. To some, Myanmar represents the biggest success from his pledge in his 2009 inaugural address to reach out to US foes if they “unclench” their fists.



White House To Host Myanmar President In Historic Visit

The White House has confirmed it will host Burma’s president next week in the first such visit by a head of state from the Southeast Asian state in nearly 50 years.

The White House said President Thein Sein’s May 20 visit “underscores President Barack Obama’s commitment to supporting and assisting those governments that make the important decision to embrace reform.”

Discussions are expected on democratic and economic development and ethnic tensions in Burma, (also known as Myanmar).

Washington has pushed for change in the country after five decades of repressive military rule that ended with Sein’s election in 2011.

It has gradually lifted sanctions against Burma as the country freed political prisoners and changed laws to open the political field for Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement.

With reporting by AP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Rescue operation after Myanmar boats sink

Boats carrying about 200 Rohingya Muslims who were evacuating ahead of a storm have capsized off western Myanmar, killing all but one person, UN officials have said.

The vessels hit trouble on Monday night after leaving Pauktaw township in Rakhine state, said a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“They were travelling to another camp ahead of the cyclone,” the spokeswoman added.

Kirsten Mildren, who works for the same UN agency, told Al Jazeera there was only one confirmed survivor from Monday’s accident.

The victims were trying to escape Cyclone Mahasen which is expected on Thursday and Friday. The UN has warned the storm could lead to “life-threatening conditions”.

Al Jazeera’s Everton Fox explains the weather impact of Tropical Cyclone Mahasen

Myanmar state television said on Monday that thousands of people displaced by communal violence last year had been evacuated from makeshift camps to safer ground in the event of the storm.

The report said authorities had moved 5,158 people from low-lying camps in the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe, to safer shelter.

But human rights groups said that the government has been too slow to act, and ignored earlier warnings to provide shelter to displaced people.

“The Burmese government didn’t heed the repeated warnings by governments and humanitarian aid groups to relocate displaced Muslims ahead of Burma’s rainy season,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia director. 

“If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made,” he said.

‘Extremely vulnerable’ 

Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Sittwe, said: ”The eye of the storm is not expected to hit Myanmar, but the people in camps – home to more than 100,000 – are extremely vulnerable to conditions we may see over the next few days.”

“These include strong winds, heavy rains and a possible surge from the ocean of up to 1.5 metres. The local government has been moving people … but people in camps aren’t trusting what they are trying to get them to do. Some say they are being asked to move to more dangerous places,” our correspondent said.

The state television report said displaced people were moved in 10 other townships in western Myanmar where communal violence flared last year between Muslims and Buddhists, taking hundreds of lives and leaving more than 100,000 people homeless. It did not give the number of people evacuated in those locations.

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. They face a growing anti-Muslim campaign led by radical Buddhist monks. 


Cyclone Mahasen is expected to hit neighbouring Bangladesh on Thursday or Friday.

Images taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite on Monday showed the storm’s centre northeast of Sri Lanka with it packing winds of up to 50 knots (92km per hour). Those winds are expected to increase to 130km per hour as the storm moves north.

The space agency said it “sees a strengthening” of the storm and forecasts an upgrade to a Cyclone 1 level by Wednesday.

“The current forecast track … takes the centre of Mahasen just north of Chittagong early on May 17 and into northern Burma,” it said.

Officials in the Bangladeshi town of Cox’s Bazar near the border with Myanmar said medical teams with as many as 30,000 Red Crescent volunteers were being formed.

In eastern India, authorities put 10 coastal districts on alert.

In 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed more than 130,000 people in Myanmar.

In 2007, Cyclone Sidr, packing winds of up to 240km per hour, left at least 3,500 people dead, levelled thousands of homes and forced the evacuation of 650,000 villagers in Bangladesh’s southwest coast.



US extends targeted sanctions on Myanmar

The Obama administration extended by one year targeted US sanctions against Myanmar, a move aimed at preventing backsliding on democratic reforms.

But to sweeten the pill, the administration on Thursday also eased some of the US visa restrictions imposed against Myanmar’s former military regime in recognition of the nation’s dramatic shift from authoritarian rule.

The actions come as expectation mounts that Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein will visit the White House this month.

It would be the first such visit by a Myanmar leader since 1966.

President Barack Obama visited the country also known as Burma in November.

The administration has yet to announce a visit by Myanmar’s leader, which could stir controversy because of an explosion of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state in recent months that has spread to central Myanmar and left hundreds dead and more than 100,000 displaced.

Most of the victims have been minority Muslims.

Human rights

While there’s still broad bipartisan backing in Congress for the administration’s efforts to support and strengthen the hand of Myanmar reformers like Thein Sein, the unrest, and Myanmar authorities failure to prevent it, has stirred concern in some quarters about the human rights situation in the country and of moving too fast to lift restrictions.

“While I’m still waiting to hear details of these and other potential moves,” Democratic Rep Joe Crowley said of Thursday’s announcement, “I urge the Administration to stick to its policy of action for action.”

Last year, the US normalised diplomatic relations and using a presidential waiver, suspended broad trade and investment sanctions.

That followed the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the release and election to parliament of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited the US in September.

The administration, however, retained targeted restrictions against some officials and cronies of the former regime, the authority extended Thursday, and the option of re-imposing the broader sanctions if need be.

While human rights groups say Washington is being too accommodating to Myanmar, where the military is still accused of serious abuses in ethnic regions, the European Union has moved even faster to roll back restrictions, paving the way for unimpeded economic ties in one of Asia’s last unexplored markets.

The 27-nation bloc last week announced it was lifting sanctions, previously only suspended, to support the country’s “remarkable process” toward democracy, even as it warned that the Southeast Asian nation must curb the recent outbursts of ethnic violence.

Like the US, the EU retains an embargo on arms sales to Myanmar.

The Obama administration is keen to laud reforms by Thein Sein’s government but restated Thursday its demand that it unconditionally release the remaining political prisoners and sever all military ties with North Korea, and end violence that has resurfaced in areas such as Rakhine state.

The administration terminated a 1996 visa ban but narrower prohibitions remain in place under other legislation, specifically forbidding travel by those who impede reforms and are implicated in rights abuses or military trade with North Korea.



Myanmar to examine Muslim-Buddhist violence

Myanmar’s government has formed a commission to investigate the causes of recent sectarian violence between Muslim Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, in which at least 78 people were killed.

President Thein Sein’s website announced the commission on Friday, more than two months after the June clashes that also displaced tens of thousands of people.

The nation’s authorities have faced heavy criticism from rights groups after the deadly unrest in western Rakhine state raised international concerns about the Rohingya’s fate inside Myanmar

The 27-member commission, which includes religious leaders, artists and former dissidents, will “expose the real cause of the incident” and suggest ways ahead, state mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar said.

The newspaper said the commission will aim to establish the causes of the June violence, the number of casualties on both sides and recommend measures to ease tensions and find “ways for peaceful coexistence”.

The commission is expected to call witnesses and be granted access to the areas rocked by the violence, which saw villages razed and has left an estimated 70,000 people – from both communities – in government-run camps and shelters.

‘Sensitive issue’

Sein, who has introduced political reforms to Myanmar since taking over as president last year following decades of repressive military rule, has rejected calls from the United Nations and human rights groups for independent investigators, saying the unrest is an internal affair.

“As an independent commission was formed inside the country… it is a right decision which showed that we can create our own fate of the country,” Aye Maung, the chairman of Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, told the AFP news agency.

The commission will be headed by a retired Religious Affairs Ministry official and include former student activists, a former UN officer and representatives from political parties and Islamic and other religious organisations.

They include several government critics who served jail time as political prisoners, including the widely respected activist and comedian Zarganar, and Ko Ko Gyi, who helped lead a failed student uprising against the former junta in 1988.

“The president wants to show the international community that he is trying his best to deal with this extraordinarily sensitive issue,” said Hkun Htun Oo, who also was appointed to the body.

Hkun Htun Oo chairs an ethnic minority political party, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, and was released from prison in January after a seven-year term.

In June, the government established a committee to investigate the sectarian strife. But its findings, originally expected by the end of that month, were never released by President Sein.

‘Underlying causes’

The new commission is tasked with proposing solutions to the longstanding hatred between the two communities and is to submit its findings by September 17.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the establishment of the commission, which “could make important contributions to restoring peace and harmony in the state and in creating a conducive environment for a more inclusive way forward to tackle the underlying causes of the violence, including the condition of the Muslim communities in Rakhine,” UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said late on Friday.

Decades of discrimination have left the Rohingya stateless, and they are viewed by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

A statement issued on behalf of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Myanmar will chair in 2014, pledged regional support to “humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State”.

Welcoming moves by Myanmar to address the situation, the statement said “harmony” among the nation’s different communities should be an “integral part of Myanmar’s ongoing democratisation and reform process”.



Obama Eases U.S. Sanctions On Myanmar

U.S. President Barack Obama has eased sanctions against Myanmar to allow U.S. companies to invest there, calling the move a “strong signal” of support for political reform in the country.

However, Obama said Washington remained concerned about the lack of investment transparency as well as the military’s role in Myanmar’s economy and made clear that U.S. firms would be required to make detailed disclosures on their dealings there.

Obama’s statement was issued shortly after the arrival there of the first U.S. ambassador, Derek Mitchell, to Burma in two decades.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Myanmar releases detained student leaders

Authorities in Myanmar have released 20 student leaders detained during the fiftieth anniversary of an army crackdown, a political activist has said.

Saturday’s release comes a day after several people were picked up in Yangon, Mandalay, Lashio and Shwebo on Friday night. They were then sent off to undisclosed locations.

Phyo Phyo Aung, a former political prisoner who was among those held, said they were freed late on Saturday.

Phyo Aung, a member of the All Burma Students Union, said she and three other members of the group were questioned at a building in Yangon that was once a Home Ministry office, because their organisation had been deemed illegal.

“Police officials told us that they just wanted to question us in connection with our plans to commemorate the anniversary,” she told the Reuters news agency, referring to the army’s suppression of protests in 1962 when dozens of students were killed and a university building blown up.

‘Act of oppression’

The arrests could prove detrimental to the improvements the government has seen in its image at home and abroad since enacting a series of reforms last year.

“This act of oppression has given us the impression that the old ways of practice are still in effect, despite all the
positivity for change that we have been hearing,” Cambodian politician Son Chhay, vice president of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, said in a statement.

“If they are even going to arrest people before any crime has taken place, this shows that they continue to use fear and
intimidation to repress”, said the group of southeast Asian politicians providing support to Myanmar’s democratic transition.

Friday’s arrests were the largest crackdown on dissent since the end of military rule last year.

The military seized power in 1962 and ruled the country under various guises until March last year.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged the government to release all political prisoners during a high-profile trip to Europe which ended last week.

The US and European Union have suspended some sanctions in recent months in response to reforms by the new quasi-civilian government, which include moves to liberalise the economy, the release of more than 600 political prisoners and the introduction of laws allowing demonstrations.

However, despite government claims that the reforms are “irreversible”, the arrest and detention of dissidents still goes on, albeit not as often, which rights groups say proves the retired generals still in power are not fully committed to
promises they have made.



Myanmar To Free 46 Prisoners

Myanmar’s state media say a total of 46 prisoners will be freed to aid “national reconciliation.”

A report in the “New Light of Myanmar” newspaper said 37 men and nine women would be set free starting on July 3, although it was unclear if any of the remaining political prisoners were among them.

Human Rights Watch says at least 659 political prisoners have been freed over the past year.

But rights groups say between 200 and 600 remain in jail.

The latest announcement came shortly after a Myanmar minister pledged further amnesties for jailed dissidents during a high-profile European tour by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi last month.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Myanmar Tells Suu Kyi Not To Call Country ‘Burma’

Authorities in Myanmar have told pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to refer to her country by its official name, not “Burma,” as it was known before the military government requested a change in English-languages references it in 1989.

In a letter published in a Myanmar newspaper, the Election Commission told Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to use the country’s name “as prescribed in the constitution.”

In several high-profile speeches during her just-completed European tour, Suu Kyi called the southeast Asian country Burma.

Opponents of the government and exile groups have persisted in referring to the country as Burma as a sign of protest.

The name Burma was given to the country by the British, who occupied it from 1826 to 1948.

Based on reporting by AP and dpa

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Suu Kyi Urges ‘Democratic’ Investment In Myanmar

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for investment in her country’s struggling economy but warned that it should not come at the expense of democratic reforms.

Suu Kyi’s comments came in conjunction with a meeting on June 26 with French President Francois Hollande.

Suu Kyi also said “financial transparency in the extractive industries and, in fact, business in general” were essential to investment.

She said efforts still needed to be made to convince the Myanmar regime of the need for democratic reforms but stressed that President Thein Sein seemed genuine.

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Suu Kyi urges ‘scepticism’ on Myanmar reforms

Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has urged the international community to invest cautiously in her  country and give priority to creating jobs as much as making profits in order to defuse the “time bomb” of high unemployment.

The former political prisoner on Friday asked global leaders to exercise “healthy scepticism” as her country sheds half a century of military rule.

In a speech to the World Economic Forum on East Asia in the Thai capital Bangkok, she said: “These days I am coming across what I call reckless optimism”. She drew applause by adding that a bit of “healthy scepticism is in order”.

Suu Kyi, who is on her first trip outside Myanmar in 24 years since she was released from house arrest two years ago, noted that the country was still in a very early phase of making democratic reforms.

“Our success, how irreversible the reform process is, will depend on national commitment. There has to be commitment on the part of all of those who wish to improve the state of our country,” she said.

She listed the country’s most essential needs as secondary education to foster political reforms and jobs to end high youth unemployment.

Millions of people in Myanmar have been forced abroad, many to Thailand, because of the chronic lack of employment.

Western sanctions have prevented foreign companies from investing in the country of 60 million people, but most of these have been suspended in recent months in response to reforms by the government that took office just over a year ago.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and new parliamentarian, who spent a total of 15 years under house arrest under the former junta, said the government was pushing through democratic, social and economic reforms but did not seem interested in overhauling a judiciary that lacked independence.

Right investment

“This was really the first time we had seen Aung San Suu Kyi speaking directly to a large group of political and business leaders given that this is the first time she has been on foreign soil in 24 years,” Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay reported from Bangkok on Friday.

Hay said that in her brief speech at the Forum, Suu Kyi used the opportunity to express the needs of her country.

“She said, of course Myanmar needs a lot of investment but it needs to be the right investment and people who are looking to put money into Myanmar need to think about the country’s best interests,” Hay said.

“She said what Myanmar does not need is more corruption. It does not need the rich getting richer; it does need things like solutions to the massive problem of youth unemployment, which she called a timebomb.”

Suu Kyi had arrived in Thailand on Tuesday for the forum. On Thursday, she pressed her concerns about the millions of Myanmar migrants living in Thailand in a meeting with the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung .

Myanmar’s sputtering economy, in ruins after half a century of military rule and years of harsh Western sanctions, has forced millions of people to seek jobs abroad. Many crossed the borders illegally to work low-skilled jobs for long hours at pay below their Thai counterparts.

Still, many make more than they would back home, and despite the hardships are keen to be employed. Jobs are severely lacking in Myanmar, which lags far behind the rest of Asia.

Our correspondent said that after her speeches at the World Economic Forum, Suu Kyi would travel to a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border.



Aung San Suu Kyi Calls For Cautious Engagement With Myanmar

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken at the World Economic Forum for East Asia in Bangkok, urging would-be investors in Myanmar to show “a little bit of healthy skepticism” before rushing to find opportunities in her country as the government there opens up after years of isolation.

Suu Kyi said on May 31 that young people in Myanmar are badly in need of “jobs, as many jobs as possible.” She described high levels of youth unemployment in her country as a “time bomb.”

Suu Kyi also said the country needs help in upgrading its infrastructure and mentioned the recent rationing of electricity.

Nonetheless, she stressed that “we have to try and eradicate corruption and inequality as we proceed towards greater investment.”

Suu Kyi’s visit to Bangkok is the first time in 24 years that she has been outside Myanmar.

She spent 15 of those 24 years under house arrest.

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, and dpa

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Obama Names Ambassador To Myanmar

U.S. President Barack Obama has named Derek Mitchell as the first U.S. ambassador to Myanmar in more than 20 years, in a move marking the restoration of full diplomatic relations.

Obama made the announcement hours after easing investment restrictions on Myanmar but keeping in place wider sanctions against former leaders of the military junta.

Obama’s move followed calls from business and political figures in the United States, Europe, and Asia to lift sanctions, and warnings by veteran democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi against excessive optimism over a political opening.

The views of Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, are considered critical to any U.S. decision to lift sanctions on Myanmar.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

UN chief holds talks with Suu Kyi in Myanmar

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has met with Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for talks about the country’s political future after a surprise climb down by the Nobel laureate in her boycott of parliament.

The discussions at the opposition leader’s lakeside mansion in Yangon on Tuesday, where she was locked up by the former military junta for much of the past two decades, came a day after Ban became the first visiting foreign dignitary to address Myanmar’s legislature.

It is the first meeting between Suu Kyi and Ban, who left frustrated after a previous visit in 2009 when the generals who ruled the nation for decades refused to allow him to see the veteran activist while in detention.

On Monday, Suu Kyi decided that she and other politicians in her National League for Democracy (NLD) party would attend the country’s parliament on Wednesday for the first time to take the oath of office.

NLD politicians had refused to pledge to “safeguard” the constitution, stating they wanted that word replaced with “respect,” a change made in other Myanmar laws.

“We have decided to comply at this juncture, because we do not want a political problem or tension,” Suu Kyi said, ending the first rift with the government since she won a parliamentary seat in historic April 1 by-elections.

“The reason we accept it, firstly is the desire of the people,” she said. “Our voters voted for us because they want to see us in parliament.”

Ban welcomed Suu Kyi’s announcement and told reporters he respected her decision.

“She is a strong and dedicated leader of this country,” he said, standing by Suu Kyi’s side at a newsconference after their meeting. “I’m sure that she’ll play a very constructive and active role as a parliamentarian.”

The UN chief said he had invited Suu Kyi to visit the UN headquarters in New York.

Suu Kyi has said one of her priorities as a politician is to push for an amendment of the 2008 constitution, under which one quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for unelected military officials.

‘Leadership and courage’

On Monday, following talks with President Thein Sein, the UN chief had paid tribute to Suu Kyi and the NLD for participating in the recent by-elections during a landmark speech to parliament.

“For many years you displayed resilience and fortitude that for generations have distinguished the Myanmar people,” he said.

Ban also hailed the “vision, leadership and courage” of Thein Sein, who has ushered in a slew of reforms in the last year including welcoming Suu Kyi’s party into the mainstream and freeing political prisoners.

Ban is the latest in a string of top foreign visitors to Myanmar amid a thaw in the army-dominated nation’s relations with the West.

The UN chief welcomed moves by the international community to reward sweeping changes in the country since the end of direct army rule last year, and called for the West to go further in easing or lifting sanctions.

Last week, the European Union responded to what it said were “historic changes” by suspending for one year a wide range of trade, economic and individual sanctions, although it left intact an arms embargo.

Canada and Australia have also recently eased punitive measures and Japan waived $ 3.7bn of Myanmar’s debt.

But the US last week ruled out an immediate end to its main sanctions on Myanmar, saying it wanted to preserve leverage to push the leadership on an end to ethnic violence, which has marred the country’s reform image.


UN’s Ban Meets With Myanmar President

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has held talks with Myanmar President Thein Sein at Sein’s official residence in the capital.

Ban is making his first visit to the country since the new reformist regime took power in March.

It was agreed the UN will assist Myanmar in carrying out a population and housing census in 2014, the country’s first census in 31 years.

Ban is expected to hold talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political prisoner who recently won a parliament seat, and to address parliament.

Ahead of his visit, Ban described Myanmar’s reforms as “fragile” and at a “critical moment.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief ,Catherine Ashton, is also currently visiting Myanmar.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

UN chief meets Myanmar president

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has met with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, offering international aid to reform the long-isolated country.

Ban is also due to become the first foreign dignitary to address the country’s newly elected parliament on Monday.

The UN chief, who is on his first visit to Myanmar since the military loosened its grip on power and allowed civilian politicians back into the government, described Thein Sein, a former general, as a “key driver” of reforms.

“I would like to extend a warm welcome from the people of Myanmar,” said Thein Sein as the pair met at the official presidential residence in the capital Naypyidaw on Monday.

Ban said that he would urge Western countries to further ease sanctions on Myanmar.

“We need to support Myanmar so it doesn’t slide back down the scale,” Ban earlier told reporters in the capital, Naypyitaw, on Sunday, the first day of a three-day visit.

Ban is expected during his visit to urge further steps towards democracy and appeal for unfettered humanitarian access to tens of thousands of refugees who have fled ethnic conflict.

Missing from parliament on Monday will be Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

The NLD swept by-elections on April 1, winning 43 of 44 available seats, but members have refused to take their seats in parliament in protest against the oath of office, which requires parliamentarians to pledge to “safeguard” the constitution.

The party wants “safeguard” replaced with “respect,” a change made in other Myanmar laws.

Suu Kyi’s party has long campaigned against the military-drafted constitution, which gives the military wide-ranging powers, including the ability to appoint key cabinet members, take control of the country through a state of emergency and occupy a quarter of the seats in parliament.

“I’m sure they’ll find a solution using their wisdom,” Ban said, of the dispute over the oath.

The UN leader will meet with Suu Kyi in Yangon on Tuesday.

Government reforms

Ban last visited the country in July 2009, when Senior General Than Shwe ruled the country as part of a government that brutally supressed dissent.

With former fourth-in-command Thein Sein now in charge, the government has eased media censorship, legalised trade unions, freed more than 600 political prisoners and begun an economic overhaul.

It has also struck ceasefire deals with ethnic rebel armies fighting for autonomy.

As a result of the reforms, the European Union, the US, Australia and Canada have eased some sanctions against the country in recent weeks, a move that Ban says would allow the UN to increase its role in Myanmar’s development.

On Monday, he signed an agreement offering UN technical support for the country’s first census since 1983.

Ban is due to travel to Shan state, one of the world’s biggest opium-growing regions, to assess moves to eradicate poppy cultivation.

He is also set to meet Thura Shwe Mann, a former general who is currently the speaker of the lower house of parliament. Ban will also see government negotiators who are leading peace talks with rebels.

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is also in Myanmar for talks with Thein Sein, following the recent suspension of EU sanctions.

Ashton met with Suu Kyi on Saturday and opened a new EU office in Yangon that will mostly oversee the management of aid programmes, but will also have a political role.

Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, also pledged his country’s support for reform in Myanmar. He met with Suu Kyi on Sunday, after arriving in the country for the first trip by a German foreign minister in 25 years.

“We want to support sustainable reforms. We know that this is not guaranteed yet but this is our main message: Germany stands ready to support the people of your country. We want to support the people and a sustainable way for democracy, freedom and the rule of law,” Westerwelle said in a news conference after meeting with Suu Kyi.


UN Chief Arrives In Latest High-Level Myanmar Visit

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has arrived in Myanmar, in the latest high-level visit to the Southeast Asian nation as it emerges from decades of military rule.

Ban is expected to hold talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political prisoner who recently won a parliament seat in a by-election.

Ban is also due to meet with President Thein Sein and speak to parliament.

Ahead of his visit, Ban described Myanmar’s reforms as “fragile” and at a “critical moment.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is also currently visiting Myanmar following the recent suspension of EU sanctions against the country to reward it for its moves toward change, which have included elections and economic reforms.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Myanmar Parliament Reopens; Suu Kyi Refuses To Take Seat

Myanmar’s parliament has reconvened following recent elections, but pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have refused to take their seats amid a dispute over the parliamentary oath.

Suu Kyi’s party wants oath wording that says lawmakers will “safeguard the constitution” replaced with “respect the constitution,” arguing the current constitution is undemocratic.

The dispute comes as European Union nations are expected to suspend most sanctions against Myanmar to reward the country for democratic reforms since the end of direct military rule one year ago.

President Thein Sein said on April 23 that he would not backtrack on democratization. But he has also vowed he will not support changes to the parliamentary oath.

Based on reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and the BBC

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

US green light for Myanmar aid work

The United States has eased financial sanctions against Myanmar to enable US-based non-government organisations to  to operate in the country in recognition of recent political reforms in the Southeast Asian nation.

The announcement by the treasury department on Tuesday allows transactions in support of aid groups and charities working in areas such as democracy-building, health and education, sports and religious activities.

It follows recent by-elections in which opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, the release of hundreds of political prisoners, and a raft of reforms implemented by a military-backed civilian government since Myanmar’s generals ended decades of direct rule in 2010.

Myanmar has been isolated for decades by sanctions imposed over human rights concerns and the country is one of the poorest in Southeast Asia.

But the US government has said it will  “meet action with action,” gradually easing sanctions to reciprocate the government’s democratic changes. The European Union and Australia have also made moves towards easing sanctions.

In a statement on Tuesday to celebrate Myanmar’s Thingyan new year, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state said the country had “taken important steps on an historic new path toward democracy and economic development”.

“As you build a brighter future filled with new opportunities, the United States will continue to work with you to strengthen mutual understanding and trust between our two countries and peoples,” said Clinton, who paid a landmark visit to Myanmar in December.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, which refers to Myanmar by its former name, expressed concern for premature lifting of sanctions.

“Many countries are thinking about giving rewards to the current administration – they haven’t thought about the remaining political prisoners and the ongoing attacks against the ethnic groups in many areas,” he said.

“This kind of action would send the wrong signal – that the current administration could do some small changes and could have more rewards.”

Contingent on reforms

The US also plans to send a full ambassador for the first time in more than two decades, and to ease restrictions on American investment and the export of other financial services, although it has retained tough trade sanctions.

Australia said on Monday it would lift financial and travel restrictions covering more than 260 people in Myanmar, including President Thein Sein, but would keep its arms embargo and sanctions against around 130 other people, including military officials.

The European Union is expected to discuss suspending its economic sanctions next week. Such a step by the EU would put pressure on the US to do likewise, for competitive business reasons.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said the US would probably consider easing investment restrictions in sectors such as tourism, agriculture, telecommunications and banking.

It would retain bans on sectors such as natural resources and precious stones perceived to be closely linked to the military. Oil, natural gas and timber are major money earners for the country.

Lifting sanctions entirely would be contingent on government consolidation of the reforms. The military is still the dominant political force in Myanmar, and severe rights abuses are still reported in ethnic minority regions.

Despite the release of hundreds of political prisoners in recent months, others remain in detention.


UK’s Cameron in landmark Myanmar visit

David Cameron, the British prime minster, has arrived in Myanmar on the first visit to the once-isolated country by a Western leader since the end of direct military rule in 2010.

Cameron on Friday met President Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw, and is also expected to hold talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon.

The visit marks a further sign of thawing relations between Western nations and the reform-minded government of a country still subjected to international sanctions after years of military rule and long condemned for human rights abuses.

Shortly after arriving in Naypyidaw, Cameron, the leader of the nation’s former imperial ruler, said “there is a government now that says it is committed to reform, that has started to take steps, and I think it is right to encourage those steps,” the BBC reported.

However, the prime minister remained cautious saying people should be “under no illusion about what a long way there is to go”.

Referring to the opposition leader, Cameron cited Suu Kyi as “a shining example for people who yearn for freedom, for democracy, for progress”.

In his meeting with Suu Kyi, Cameron is expected to address the “huge reforms that the country is currently under-going” and to offer aid in reforming the nation’s judiciary, Al Jazeera’s Aela Callan, reporting from Bangkok said.

Economic trade

Prior to his arrival, Cameron had said that he would probably push for an easing of European Union sanctions against Myanmar following his landmark visit to the nation.

“If Burma moves towards democracy then we should respond in kind, and we should not be slow in doing that. But first I want to and see for myself how things are going,” Cameron told the BBC, referring to the nation by its former name.

“Just as Britain played a leading role in Europe in placing tough sanctions on that regime, so we should be the
ones if we are satisfied change is taking place, we should be the ones not being backwards in our response.”

A formal decision on whether to ease European trade bans is expected on April 23.

Of the economic impact of lifting trade sanctions with a nation of 60 million, our correspondent said “it’s no secret that there are many business interests in Myanmar”.

The fact that the nation has been “largely unexploited in terms of business opportunities” is part of what is driving a steady stream of foreign dignitaries, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague to the nation once seen as a pariah state, said our correspondent.

Myanmar’s military rulers ceded power a year ago to a quasi-civilian government following a November 2010 election marred by opposition complaints of rigging and won by a party set up by the military.

“In a world where there are many dark and depressing chapters of history being written there is a potential chapter
of light. Of course we should be sceptical, of course we should be questioning,” Cameron said ahead of his visit.

The new government has released hundreds of political prisoners and introduced a wave off reforms including loosening media controls, allowing trade unions and protests, talks with ethnic minority rebels and sweeping economic changes.

In landmark parliamentary by-elections earlier this month, Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi was elected to Myanmar’s parliament after decades as a prisoner of the country’s military regime.


US to soften sanctions on Myanmar

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has said Washington would ease restrictions on investment to Myanmar and move quickly to name an ambassador after landmark elections.

Hoping to boost reformers in the country, Clinton said on Wednesday that the US would also make it easier for Myanmar officials to visit but would not yet ease the bulk of sanctions on the long-isolated state.

Clinton hailed the “leadership and courage” of President Thein Sein after the country held by-elections that will see opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi entering parliament for the first time.

“The United States will stand with the reformers and the democrats both inside the government and in the larger civil society as they work together for that more hopeful future that is the right of every single person,” Clinton told reporters.

Al Jazeera’s Rosalind Jordan, reporting from Washington, described Clinton’s statement as a “confidence-building message”.

“This is an opportunity not just for renewed diplomatic ties, but for US non-governmental organizations to carry out work in civil society building and to protect the environment. Also for [US] businesses to go in and help the people of Myanmar develop their agriculture and tourism sectors,” Jordan said.

Caveats remain

Clinton announced “the beginning of the process” of a “targeted easing of our ban on the export of US financial services and investment”.

She said that the step on investment was “part of a broader effort to help accelerate economic modernization and political reform”.

But she warned: “Sanctions and prohibitions will stay in place on individuals and institutions that remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts.”

Clinton, who previously announced that the US would restore full diplomatic relations with Myanmar for the first time in two decades, said the administration would complete formalities “in the coming days” and then formally nominate an ambassador to the Senate for confirmation.

Aung Din, a former political prisoner and executive director of the US Campaign for Burma advocacy group, was more critical. He sad Myanmar’s leaders won “enormous” rewards even though Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will hold a tiny number of seats in the military-dominated parliament.

“Today will be the best day for the Burmese regime, which is still killing innocent civilians in ethnic areas in Burma,” he said.

But Clinton said that the US administration would still press for greater progress on key concerns including a release of all remaining political prisoners and an end to any military cooperation with North Korea.

As Al Jazeera’s Jordan pointed out,”Washington is sending a message of encouragement for the reform-minded, but it has been made clear that the US won’t ignore human rights abuses.”


ASEAN Summit Closes With Call To Scrap Myanmar Sanctions

Southeast Asian leaders have called on Western countries to immediately lift punitive sanctions on Myanmar in the wake of the elections in the country that was ruled for decades by a military regime.

The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — of which Myanmar is a member — made the call at the close of a summit on April 4 in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said ASEAN leaders “feel very satisfied and pleased” with Myanmar’s “free, fair and transparent” by-election on Sunday.

The opposition National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, won 44 of the 45 seats that were being contested in the vote.

Based on reporting by AP and dpa

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Myanmar Opposition Claims Landslide Election Win

The opposition in Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi is claiming a landslide victory in the April 1 parliamentary elections.

The opposition said it won at least 42 of the 45 contested seats.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Suu Kyi, who had been detained for 15 years, won an estimated 90 percent of the vote in her race.

It was the first election in which the 66-year-old Suu Kyi participated after being under house arrest during Myanmar’s past two general elections in 1990 and 2010.

The National League of Democracy won the 1990 election by a landslide but was denied power for two decades by the ruling military junta.

Based on reporting by AP and dpa

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Suu Kyi hails Myanmar polls as ‘new era’

Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has hailed the recent round of Myanmar by-elections, overwhelmingly won by her party, as the harbinger of a “new era”.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) claimed to have won all 44 parliamentary seats it contested, including one where Suu Kyi was in the fray.

The veteran activist’s election to political office, if confirmed, would mark the latest change in the country after decades of outright military rule ended last year. It would also be the Nobel laureate’s first foray into parliament.

“This is not so much our triumph as a triumph for people who have decided that they must be involved in the political process in this country,” Suu Kyi said in a victory speech at her party headquarters in Yangon on Monday.

A total of 17 parties are competing in by-election, with four main contenders for the 45 seats on offer
  National League for Democracy: The NLD was founded in 1988 by Aung San Suu Kyi after a popular uprising against military rule
  Union Solidarity and Development Party: The USDP won about 80 per cent of the seats available in 2010, and is backed by the military
  National Democratic Force: The NDF is made up of breakaway NLD leaders, who opposed Suu Kyi’s decision not to run in 2010
  Shan Nationalities Democratic Party: The SNDP represents Myanmar’s second-largest ethnic group, and had a strong showing in 2010

“We hope this will be the beginning of a new era,” said the activist, who was locked up by the former military rulers for most of the past 22 years.

Suu Kyi struck a conciliatory tone towards the other political parties.

“We hope that all parties that took part in the elections will be in a position to co-operate with us in order to create a genuinely democratic atmosphere in our nation,” she said.

The NLD said that it had won all of the seats it contested, based on its own tally, but no official results have yet been announced.

Suu Kyi’s win is “hugely symbolic,” Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Yangon, said.

“And while she will have little power, the mere fact that she is there means there will be a lot more international attention on parliament itself and the decisions that it makes.”

He said the success of these elections might mean bigger gains for the opposition in the upcoming 2015 general elections.

More than six million people were eligible to vote on Sunday, with a total of 160 candidates from 17 parties, including six new to the political stage for 45 seats.

The number of seats at stake is not enough to threaten the military-backed ruling party’s overwhelming majority, secured in full elections in 2010.

The government for the first time invited teams of foreign observers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, European Union and the US, and journalists to witness the elections.

Since taking office a year ago, President Thein Sein has carried out reforms including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, easing media restrictions and welcoming the opposition back into mainstream politics.

The NLD won a landslide election victory in 1990 but the ruling military never allowed it to take office. The party also boycotted the 2010 polls that swept the army’s political proxies to power and were marred by complaints of cheating and intimidation.


Suu Kyi claims victory in Myanmar elections

Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to the country’s parliament in landmark by-elections, according to her National League for Democracy (NLD).

The country’s opposition party claimed a historic victory on Sunday for Suu Kyi in her bid for a seat in parliament, with NLD announcing that the Nobel laureate had won a parliamentary seat for the first time.

If confirmed, this would mark a stunning turnaround for Suu Kyi, who was a political prisoner, jailed by the military-led government for most of the past 22 years.

Some people wept with joy at the news outside the party’s headquarters in Yangon.

“We have been waiting for this day for a long time. I’m so happy,” said NLD supporter Kalyar, who goes by one name.

Suu Kyi took an estimated 82 per cent of the vote in Kawhmu constituency, according to NLD senior member Tin Oo, based on the party’s own unofficial tally of the by-election. Official results were expected within a week.

The AFP news agency reports that the NLD also claims it is on track to win 44 of the 45 seats available in the parliament, although official results are not expected for days.

A total of 17 parties are competing in by-election, with four main contenders for the 45 seats on offer
  National League for Democracy: The NLD was founded in 1988 by Aung San Suu Kyi after a popular uprising against military rule
  Union Solidarity and Development Party: The USDP won about 80 per cent of the seats available in 2010, and is backed by the military
  National Democratic Force: The NDF is made up of breakaway NLD leaders, who opposed Suu Kyi’s decision not to run in 2010
  Shan Nationalities Democratic Party: The SNDP represents Myanmar’s second-largest ethnic group, and had a strong showing in 2010

“Reports are coming through that Suu Kyi has won the polls in Kawhmu, a very poor, rural part of Myanmar … That is a place where she spent the night on Saturday night, with the locals out there. She has been out there campaigning a couple of times, where she has received an incredible response,” said Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Yangon.

Sunday’s vote is seen as a key test of the government’s commitment to recent democratic reforms.

Our correspondent said that provisional results from further north, an area near the city of Mandalay, where there were 10 seats up for grabs also suggested that NLD was ahead in eight of those seats.

More than six million people were eligible to vote on Sunday, with a total of 160 candidates from 17 parties, including six new to the political stage, contesting for 45 parliamentary seats.

The number of seats at stake is not enough to threaten the military-backed ruling party’s overwhelming majority, secured in full elections in 2010.

Suu Kyi’s apparent victory had been widely expected, despite complaints by the NLD over alleged voting irregularities and campaign intimidation.

She said she did not regret standing for parliament because the polls had boosted people’s interest in politics after decades of outright military rule ended last year.

The government for the first time invited teams of foreign observers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, European Union and the US, and journalists to witness the elections.

Political reforms

Since taking office a year ago, President Thein Sein has carried out reforms including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, easing media restrictions and welcoming the opposition back into mainstream politics.

Our correspondent, reporting earlier from Kawhmu, said: “There are international monitors on the ground, but they are not allowed inside the polling booths. They are certainly not allowed to oversee the counting when that starts later on Sunday.”

“So, they are here to observe overall process, talk to voters about any irregularities that they might have seen,” he said.

“What we are hearing is that some voters have complained that voting sheets have been tampered with. Some voters have complained that inside the polling stations some of the officials have been coercing voters into voting for a certain party.

“So, not the best of starts, but certainly something the National League for Democracy and Suu Kyi were expecting.”

Nyan Win, a spokesman for the party, told the AFP news agency on Sunday that his party had submitted a letter of complaint to the country’s election commission regarding alleged irregularities involving ballot papers that could potentially be invalidated without due cause.

The NLD won a landslide election victory in 1990 but the ruling military never allowed it to take office. The party also boycotted the 2010 polls that swept the army’s political proxies to power and were marred by complaints of cheating and intimidation.

Suu Kyi described the vote as “a step towards step one in democracy”, despite complaining on Friday that the polls were not “genuinely free and fair”.

“What has been happening in this country is really beyond what is acceptable for a democratic election. Still, we are determined to go forward because we think that is what our people want,” the Nobel peace laureate said.


Myanmar Opposition Says Suu Kyi Leading In Race For Parliament Seat

The main opposition party in Myanmar says early results from an April 1 poll show Aung San Suu Kyi leading in her race for a parliamentary seat.

The opposition says Suu Kyi is ahead with 65 percent of the vote in 82 of her constituency’s 129 polling stations.

The statistics are not official and the election commission has yet to release any outcome of the election.

The election, which is to fill a few dozen vacant seats in the 664-member legislature, is seen as the freest in Myanmar in decades and comes after months of reforms by the military-backed government.

But it will not change the balance of power in the country, which is still controlled by agroup of retired army officers.

Suu Kyi has spent much of the last 20 years in prison for her attempts to bring democracy to Myanmar.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Myanmar votes in crucial by-election

Voting has begun for crucial by-elections in Myanmar, seen as a key test of the military-backed civilian government’s budding reforms, with prominent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi among those standing.

The Nobel laureate, who is running in the constituency of Kawhmu, south of Yangon, is widely expected to win a seat in a parliament dominated by the military and its political allies.

She said she did not regret standing for parliament because the polls had boosted people’s interest in politics after decades of outright military rule ended last year.

A carnival atmosphere pervaded in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, one of six constituencies up for grabs in Yangon, on the last day of campaigning on Friday.

“Authorities sent us a blueprint of how to prepare the polling station and we have laid it out exactly as they instructed,” Myint Ngwe, a school teacher who was in charge of the preparations, said.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy [NLD] party is contesting on 44 out of 45 seats, but has complained of irregularities that could undermine the vote.

The NLD won a landslide election victory in 1990 but the junta never allowed it to take office. The party also boycotted the 2010 polls that swept the army’s political proxies to power and were marred by complaints of cheating and intimidation.

“We have done a lot of preparation for April 1. We have polling station representatives and people to provide information, because we want to know what’s going on,” Phyu Phyu Thin, a local NLD candidate, told AFP news agency.

“The result will match people’s desires. The NLD must win.”

Foreign observers

A total of 160 candidates from 17 parties, including six new to the political stage, are contesting in the country’s 45 constituencies.

The number of seats at stake is not enough to threaten the military-backed ruling party’s overwhelming majority in parliament but Suu Kyi described the vote as “a step towards step one in democracy”.

The pro-democracy leader, who spent most of the past 22 years as a political prisoner, is contesting for the first time despite criticising the polls as not “genuinely free and fair”.

“What has been happening in this country is really beyond what is acceptable for a democratic election. Still, we are determined to go forward because we think that is what our people want,” Suu Kyi on Friday.

She has accused rivals of vandalising election posters, padding electoral registers and “many, many cases of intimidation”, including two attempts to injure candidates with catapulted projectiles.

The government has for the first time invited teams of foreign observers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN], European Union and the US, and journalists to witness the elections.

Since taking office a year ago, President Thein Sein has carried out reforms including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, easing media restrictions and welcoming the opposition back into mainstream politics.