A U.N. human rights envoy said Sunday that Myanmar is considering letting foreign observers monitor April elections that are viewed as crucial for gauging the nation's much-heralded democratic reforms.
The envoy, Tomas Ojea Quintana, praised the "continuing wave of reforms in Myanmar, the speed and breadth of which has surprised" Myanmar watchers around the world. Quintana ended a six-day visit to the country on Sunday.
After nearly half a century of iron-fisted military rule in Myanmar, a nominally civilian government took office last March. The new government has surprised even some of the country's toughest critics by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing cease-fire deals with ethnic rebels, increasing media freedoms and easing censorship laws.
"My mission confirmed that a positive impact has been made," Quintana said. "However, serious challenges remain and must be addressed. There is also a risk of backtracking on the progress achieved thus far."
During his trip, Quintana met with senior government ministers, political prisoners and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime political prisoner whose bid for a parliamentary seat has drawn intense international interest.
He called the upcoming polls "a key test" of the government's commitment to reforms.
"I must stress that the credibility of the elections will not be determined solely on the day of the vote, but on the basis of the entire process leading up to and following election day," Quintana said.
He said that in talks with Myanmar's Election Commission, "I was informed that the use of international observers was under consideration."
Allowing outside monitors would be a major step for the long-isolated country, where international bids to send observers were rejected in 2010 and 1990, the last two elections.
A string of visiting American officials has also singled out the April polls as a measure of whether the West will lift sanctions that were imposed on Myanmar during the military junta's rule.
Quintana cited a number of human rights concerns, noting that authorities continue to detain an unknown number of political prisoners. He urged the government to allow an investigation to determine how many remain behind bars.
The April election is being held to fill 48 parliamentary seats vacated by lawmakers who were appointed to the Cabinet and other posts.