A woman places her ballot into the Pyithu Hluttaw representative election box in the April by-elections.
The 2012 Myanmar by-elections were held on 1 April 2012. The elections were held to fill 48 vacant parliamentary seats. Three of those remained vacant as polling in three Kachin constituencies was postponed. There was no plan to fill the additional 5 seats cancelled in the 2010 election and 1 seat after a deceased RNDP member.
In February 2012, President Thein Sein remarked that the government would "seriously consider" allowing Southeast Asian observers from the Association of South East Asian Nations to observe the election. The Burmese government confirmed that it had requested for ASEAN election observers to arrive on 28 March, five days before the election. Canada, United States, European Union, China, and North Korea, as well as ASEAN dialogue partners (India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and Australia), were also invited to observe the election, although it remained unclear the degree of access these international observers would have. The United States sent two election observers and three journalists.
Aung Din of the US Campaign for Burma has said that the Burmese government is exploiting the elections to have Western sanctions lifted as quickly as possible, since a free and transparent election has been one of the conditions set by the European Union and American governments. Moreover, the National League for Democracy has pointed out irregularities in voter lists and rule violations by local election committees. On 21 March 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was quoted as saying "Fraud and rule violations are continuing and we can even say they are increasing."
With regard to the invitations of international election observers, a US State Department spokesperson said that the Burmese government fell short of expectations to accommodate observers during the entirety of the campaign season (as typically done), which is nearing the end, as a select number of observers were allowed only to observe the election:
"...it does fall short of international complete transparency on an election, and we hope they’ll continue to keep the system open, and open it further... A full-scale international observation effort would typically include quite a bit of pre-Election Day observation, systematic coverage on Election Day, post-election follow-up, and professional monitors from non-governmental organisations."
Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), a Bangkok-based election monitoring organisation, has publicly called the election observations inadequate, failing to meet international standards, being too restrictive (only two observers are allowed per government, or five for ASEAN nations), and coming too late (invitations were sent less than two weeks before the election date), all of which make it logistically impossible to monitor all 48 polling stations. On 20 March 2012, Somsri Hananuntasuk, executive director of ANFREL, was deported from Yangon, purportedly for entering the country on a tourist visa.
Two days before the by-elections, at press conference, Suu Kyi remarked that the voter irregularities were "beyond what is acceptable for democratic elections," said she did not consider the campaign "genuinely free and fair" and referred to acts of intimidation (such as stone-throwing incidents and vandalism) toward party members. On 1 April, the opposition National League for Democracy alleged irregularities, claiming that ballot sheets had been tampered to allow the election commission to cancel the vote for Suu Kyi's party.
Two Australian MPs (Janelle Saffin and Mathias Cormann), who were selected to observe the by-elections as part of Australia's monitoring team, were denied visas to enter the country.
Much of the international reaction on the by-elections has revolved around the sanctions imposed by Western countries (including the United States, Australia, and the European Union). President Thein Sein and the Burmese government have been eager to work with Aung San Suu Kyi to remove these measures.
President Thein Sein remarked that the by-elections were conducted "in a very successful manner."
China has noted that some Western countries have said they will lift sanctions on Myanmar. China has had a consistent stance on this issue. We welcome moves by these countries to lift sanctions on Myanmar and call on all parties to fully lift sanctions on Myanmar as soon as possible.
ASEAN leaders, including those from Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have called for the immediate removal of sanctions. Singapore's Prime Minister said the following: "President Thein Sein has been much bolder than many observers have expected. ASEAN is happy that Myanmar has been able to take these steps forward." Australia's foreign minister, Bob Carr, said the Australian government was planning to loosen sanctions, but not abolish them altogether.
We should now work with our many international partners to begin the process of easing sanctions on Burma. This will be a gradual and incremental process, and the U.S. Congress will have a critical role to play.
On 4 April 2012, the Obama administration announced that it would nominate an ambassador to the country and ease some travel and finance restrictions, without specifying a time table. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the elections:
The results of the April 1st parliamentary by-elections represents a dramatic demonstration of popular will that brings a new generation of reformers into government. This is an important step in the country’s transformation, which in recent months has seen the unprecedented release of political prisoners, new legislation broadening the rights of political and civic association, and fledgling process in internal dialogue between the government and ethnic minority groups.
To normalise diplomatic relations between the countries, she also said that following the nomination of an ambassador, the US would establish USAID mission in Burma, ease restrictions on export of finance services and developmental assistance and facilitate travel for some government officials, although targeted sanctions toward "individuals and institutions that remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts" would remain in place. A few sanctions (in the financial, agriculture, tourism and telecommunications sectors), are directly controlled by the executive branch, but most of the imposed sanctions were legislated by Congress, and will take a lengthy process to remove. On 6 April 2012, the Obama administration nominated Derek Mitchell, who is currently the American special envoy to Burma, as United States Ambassador to Burma.
The European Union, which has already eased some sanctions and travel restrictions (including on Thein Sein), will review travel bans and asset freezes on individuals tied to the previous ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council on 23 April 2012. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested that easing of restrictions would be contingent on the release of political prisoners and further progress.
Other scholars have noted that the by-elections, which were a relatively minor event, given the number of seats at stake, are not as defining and important as other steps toward national reconciliation. Some have called removal of sanctions premature, while others have considered sanctions ineffective in the reform process.