By Martin Petty
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Myanmar will "seriously consider" allowing Southeast Asian observers to attend April parliamentary by-elections, President Thein Sein said, the latest sign of openness by a civilian government keen to end decades of isolation.
The president made the comment to the visiting secretary-general of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Surin Pitsuwan, on Monday, ASEAN said in a statement, and both agreed observers would give more credibility to polls that will be closely watched by the international community.
If observers are allowed, it would be a first for Myanmar, which held elections in November 2010 that were fraught with allegations of vote-rigging and conducted under tight laws that hamstrung opposition parties.
A party led by scores of retired armed forces members with close links to the former military regime swept 76 percent of the 1,158-seat national legislature.
Although only 48 seats are up for grabs in the by-elections, they are seen as a litmus test of the new government's democratic credentials after a series of reforms that would have been inconceivable under the military dictatorship that ceded power last March.
Adding weight to the polls will be the participation of Nobel Peace laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), which boycotted the 2010 vote and pulled out of the protracted constitution-drafting process that preceded it.
Surin said ASEAN was committed to helping Myanmar fully engage with the international community.
"Myanmar's determination, and the assistance of ASEAN ... will ultimately determine the pace and intensity of Myanmar's integration into ASEAN and the world," he said after his trip to the remote new capital, Naypyitaw.
The government is eager to gain international acceptance for its fledgling political system, which is led by retired generals from the former junta, including Thein Sein.
It has also been told by the Western nations that free and fair elections would go a long way towards convincing them to lift sanctions which have squeezed Myanmar's economy.
Myanmar has repeatedly promised to pull out all the stops to ensure the vote is free and fair and has welcomed Suu Kyi's bid to become a lawmaker, which would be a boost for a legislature that while grand in scale, has only limited powers.
In a sign of the government's new openness, a ministerial order banning the use of sports grounds for rallies -- which the NLD is planning -- was lifted on Monday, just hours after the party called a news conference to complain of attempts to stifle its campaign.
Suu Kyi has also been granted airtime for two 15-minute campaign speeches on state television, the NLD said on Tuesday.
Suu Kyi's aim, if elected, is to push for amendments to a 2008 constitution that enshrines the military's political leadership role in the country, but it is unclear whether she could convince parliament to approve such changes.
(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Yangon; Editing by Nick Macfie)