Myanmar lifts rally ban after Suu Kyi's party complains

YANGON Mon Feb 20, 2012 9:47am EST

Myanmar's National League for Democracy spokesman Nyan Win speaks to reporters during a news conference at the NLD head office in Yangon February 20, 2012. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Myanmar's National League for Democracy spokesman Nyan Win speaks to reporters during a news conference at the NLD head office in Yangon February 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

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YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's election authorities Monday said a ministerial order restricting some campaign rallies had been lifted, just hours after Aung San Suu Kyi's party complained its campaigning for upcoming parliamentary by-elections was being stifled.

The Union Election Commission (UEC) contacted Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which boycotted the 2010 election, to tell the party that a ban on the use of sports grounds, which prevented a February 14 rally from taking place, was no longer in effect.

"The UEC has now allowed us to use the facilities earlier banned by sports ministry. We do welcome this news," Han Tha Myint, an NLD central executive committee member, told Reuters.

It was not immediately clear what took place leading to the announcement and whether the ministry had rescinded the order, or if the UEC had overturned it.

The April 1 by-election vote for 48 vacant seats, mostly in the lower house, will be closely watched by the international community, with a fair contest demanded by Western countries currently reviewing their policies on sanctions in response to democratic reforms by the new civilian government.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, 66, is standing as a candidate in what is seen as a partial endorsement of the fledgling democratic system now in place in Myanmar after decades of authoritarian military rule.

For that reason, the government is keen to have Suu Kyi on board and the lifting of the ban, which was unthinkable under previous army governments, is another sign of openness by new civilian rulers.

RESTRICTIVE RULES

On the campaign trail, supporters have lined the streets and flocked in their thousands to hear speeches by Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar's late independence hero, Aung San.

NLD campaign manager Nyan Win had earlier told a news conference that the ban threatened the validity of the by-elections and make them "difficult to be free and fair."

Sports Minister Tint Hsan was accused by the NLD of blocking the party from holding a rally at a sports ground in the town of Hlegu, north of Yangon, on February 14. The election commission overruled Tint Hsan's order, but the ministry issued the ban a day later on February 15.

Nyan Win had earlier accused the country's biggest party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of making promises of infrastructure and electricity upgrades that were tantamount to vote-buying.

He had expressed dismay at a decision by authorities in volatile Kachin State, where conflict is raging between ethnic Kachin rebels and government troops, to reject its request to hold a rally there on security grounds.

"So why do they hold by-elections in a constituency where they cannot ensure security?" Nyan Win added.

Despite Suu Kyi's popularity, the NLD has only limited funds and campaign experience. Suu Kyi is almost certain to win in her constituency, but it is unclear how the NLD will fare elsewhere.

The NLD must compete with the USDP, which enjoys big spending power, a parliamentary majority and close connections with the former junta, remnants of which dominate the civilian government.

Suu Kyi's decision to run and her cordial ties with the reform-minded President Thein Sein have been welcomed by the international community, but some critics are skeptical, saying she could be being used by the government to boost its case for having sanctions lifted.

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Lane)

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