Foreign journalists will not be allowed into Myanmar to cover the military-ruled country's first election in 20 years, election officials said Monday, issuing the latest restriction for an election widely criticized as a sham.
The Election Commission said there was no need to grant visas for foreign reporters because there are local reporters in the country who work for foreign media. The commission also reiterated that it was "not necessary" for foreign observers to monitor the elections.
The ruling military junta has billed the election as a key step toward democracy after five decades of military rule. Critics say that oppressive rules governing campaigning, the repression of the main opposition party and other elements ensure that the army will continue its commanding influence after the polls.
"Representatives in Yangon who are working for foreign media can cover the elections and no foreign journalists will be allowed," Election Commission chairman Thein Soe told diplomats and Myanmar-based media at its first election briefing held in the junta's remote capital, Naypyitaw.
There are 25 officially registered "foreign correspondents" in Myanmar, mostly Myanmar nationals who work for 17 foreign news media outlets. The only two foreigners are Chinese nationals who work for Chinese media.
On election day, authorities will "arrange a tour" for diplomats and U.N. agencies in the country, said the commission chairman, a retired army major general who also served as deputy chief justice.
"Since these diplomats represent their respective countries, there is no need to invite foreign observers," Thein Soe said. "It is not necessary to invite foreign monitors as Myanmar has capable and experienced persons regarding the election process."
Under election laws, outsiders including reporters will not be allowed to enter polling stations and take photographs "to enable voters to vote in privacy," Thein Soe said.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Monday that the elections won't be credible. He said the decision not to allow foreign journalists to cover the elections is "unfortunate but not surprising given Burma's track record leading up to these elections."
The last elections in Myanmar, also known as Burma, were in 1990. Foreign media were allowed into the country to cover those polls, which resulted in a landslide win for the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta refused to recognize the results and has kept Suu Kyi locked away in prison or under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.
Suu Kyi's current term of house arrest expires Nov. 13, just six days after the elections.
Her party has denounced the polls as unfair and undemocratic and is boycotting the election, leaving the race without a strong opposition.
The main junta-backed party is the only party strong enough to field candidates in almost every constituency.
Thein Soe said that altogether 3,153 candidates, including 82 independent candidates, will contest the 1,158 seats of the Union Parliament and regional parliaments.
Out of 1,158 constituencies, 54 constituencies will have only one candidate and will automatically win so are, therefore, not required to hold elections in those areas, he said.
The chairman said there will be more than 29 million eligible voters and 40,000 polling stations in the country.
Asked to comment on remarks by the international community that the elections are not credible, Thein Soe replied: "The elections will be held for this country and in accordance with the rules of the country and we do not need to make clarification on the credibility of the election."
Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Washington contributed to this report.