IRI Denies Wrongdoing After Election Commission Criticizes Training for NLD

By Paul Vrieze 4 December 2014

RANGOON — The US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) has said it is complying with Burma’s laws and Constitution after the Union Election Commission (UEC) suggested earlier this week that an IRI training event for the National League for Democracy (NLD) had violated election laws and should not continue.

The Election Commission has said that IRI’s election campaign training for the NLD branch in Irrawaddy Division’s Pyapon District on Nov. 17 breached election rules as it provided exclusive support for one party. The commission said training can only be held if organized as a multi-party event.

IRI Burma Resident Country Director Stephen Cima told The Irrawaddy in a reaction that the institute had carried out election training for registered political parties in Burma in the past 18 months through both multi-party and single-party events without receiving complaints.

He said the programs provide equal training opportunities to all political parties and that single-party training had been provided to various parties, including the NLD and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

“IRI is committed to complying with the Constitution and election regulations and laws. IRI looks forward to continuing cooperation with political parties and the UEC,” Cima said.

He said IRI’s single- and multiparty-training events had been welcomed by participating parties, adding that single-party training “is particularly effective when discussing campaign topics related to message and strategy, where a party may not be willing to speak candidly with their potential competitors in the room.”

In late 2015, Burma is scheduled to hold its first free and fair democratic elections after decades of direct military rule. The NLD of popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is the main challenger for the USDP, a political party filled with ex-junta members.

IRI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization funded by the US State Department, US Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the UN and European Union. The institute implements democratization programs that include supporting political parties ahead of elections, as well as electoral reform and election monitoring.

Election Commission Deputy Chairman Hla Maung Cho said the commission believes single-party training is “a problem” and sent a letter urging IRI to discontinue the events. “It should not give training to only one party, but should give seminars or training that includes all the political parties,” he said on Thursday.

“If the International Republican Institute is going to give training concerning the political parties it should be in line with the rules and regulations, including provisions of the Constitution,” Hla Maung Cho said, without specifying which rules and regulations IRI had violated by holding single-party training.

He said the NLD in Pyapon District also failed to seek prior approval from the commission for the Nov. 17 event as required by the Political Parties Registration Law. He added that the NLD could be at risk of violating Constitution Article 407(C), which states that a party’s registration could be revoked for receiving “financial, material or other support” from foreign organizations.

Asked why the commission had not objected earlier to IRI’s single-party events, Hla Maung Cho said, “We don’t know about what they [IRI] did in the previous period, we know about what they did in Pyapon.” He declined to comment on whether the commission would formally ban IRI single-party training.

In the past, concerns have been raised over the independence of the Election Commission, which is chaired by Tin Aye, a former junta general and ex-USDP lawmaker who was appointed by President Thein Sein in 2011. The commission’s actions are being closely watched to see if it will be a fair arbiter in the important 2015 poll.

In April, Tin Aye raised eyebrows after he said that military lawmakers would leave Parliament “only when democratic standards are high.” He suggested that politicians would only be allowed to campaign in their constituency, a move that was seen as a way of curbing the campaign options for the hugely popular Suu Kyi, who regularly draws tens of thousands of people to her rallies.

IRI is among a group of about half a dozen international organizations that are working with Burma’s Election Commission and political parties to prepare them for the elections. Some will also carry out independent monitoring during the poll.

This story was amended on Dec.5, 2014, to reflect the fact that IRI is funded by the US State Department, USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy, and not by the US House of Representatives as was previously reported.