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Myanmar elections: a litmus test for democracy

For many foreign governments, including the United States, as well as humanitarian organizations and human rights groups, the by-elections are an important litmus test for assessing the commitment of the Thein Sein administration to democratic reforms.

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Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will stand in by-elections on April 1. This is the first time Suu Kyi and the NLD have participated in elections since 1990.

In that election, the NLD swept 392 out of the 492 contested seats, but the results were annulled by the military regime. Opposition figures that resisted military rule were arrested, others went into exile. Suu Kyi was detained on July 20, 1989, and placed under house arrest where she remained for almost 15 of the next 21 years.

Suu Kyi was released on November 13, 2010, following national elections earlier that month that saw a nominally civilian government headed by President Thein Sein replace the military junta. The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections because of what it said were “unjust” political party registration laws.

One law required the NLD to expel any members with criminal records, including Suu Kyi, in order to register in the elections

Nascent democratic reforms implemented by the new administration over the past year have altered the country’s political climate, prompting the NLD to reregister in late 2011 in order to participate in the April by-elections.

Suu Kyi’s decision to rejoin the political process is an important endorsement of the president’s reform efforts. Myanmar’s by-elections carry outsized significance. For many foreign governments, including the United States, as well as humanitarian organizations and human rights groups, the by-elections are an important litmus test for assessing the commitment of the Thein Sein administration to democratic reforms. In addition, it will be an indicator of the president’s ability to overcome factional divides in the government and persuade conservatives to accept his leadership.

Many foreign governments have made conducting “free and fair’’ by-elections a key condition for easing sanctions against Myanmar. Myanmar’s April 1 By-Elections: What’s at Stake? | Center for Strategic and International Studies

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