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U.S. says Myanmar elections will determine future engagement

Supporters react as Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech during her campaign rally for the upcoming general elections in Toungup, Rakhine state, October 16, 2015.

By David Brunnstrom 
October 21, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The United States will not turn a blind eye to shortcomings in Myanmar's election next month and U.S. help to the future government and any more easing of sanctions will depend on the overall process, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia said on Wednesday.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel told a congressional hearing Washington was "deeply, deeply concerned" by the treatment of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority and warned that the politicization of religion and the spread of hate speech could lead to election-day violence.

"We will make our assessment based on what we hear and see," Russel said, adding that this would include the views of the political opposition led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, election observers and the media.

"We will also look at the morning after," he said. "It is critically important that all parties accept the results of the polling.

"Our ability to assist the new Burmese government, let alone to look at relaxation of sanctions ... will depend on our assessment of the integrity of the overall process," Russel said.

"The conduct and results of these elections will fundamentally shape our engagement with the Burmese government in 2016 and beyond," he added.

Myanmar's Nov. 8 poll has been touted as the country's first free and fair vote in 25 years and a major landmark that will determine the pace and scope of democratic reforms that started four years ago.

The United States and other Western countries welcomed reforms launched after Myanmar's military stepped back from 49 years in direct power and have since eased most sanctions, but concerns have grown about limits to the process.

Russel said success was not guaranteed and significant problems remained.

He pointed to the disenfranchisement of 750,000 Rohingyas and disqualification of 75 parliamentary candidates for failing to meet citizenship and residency requirements.

Russel said over 100 political prisoners remained in detention and some 400 activists faced charges, including students and journalists.

Hardliners from a radical Buddhist organization, Ma Ba Tha, have stoked religious tension ahead of the vote with anti-Muslim rallies supporting laws seen as targeting the Rohingya.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is expected to do well in the vote, but the current constitution reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats and key cabinet posts for the military and effectively bars her from the presidency.

The NLD won a 1990 election in a landslide, but the results were never recognized by the military.

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