YANGON (Reuters) - Army-ruled Myanmar has suspended visas on arrival for tourists from September ahead of its first elections in two decades, officials said on Monday, potentially restricting access to the country for foreign observers.
The reclusive country began offering visas to arriving tourists in May to lift tourism. But the scheme will be suspended on Sept. 1, a government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
The Nov. 7 parliamentary poll, the first nationwide elections since 1991, are widely dismissed by critics as an elaborate charade aimed at cementing the army’s grip on power and attracting investment.
“We think the real motive for this measure could be to prevent outside reporters and monitors from entering the country ahead of the Nov. 7 elections,” a private tour operator said.
Total tourism arrivals in Myanmar during the fiscal year 2009-2010 stood at 300,000, up from 255,288 a year earlier.
Many foreign journalists traveled to the country on tourist visas during a monk-led political protest in 2007 and when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. The regime offers few opportunities for foreign observers to visit the country. Journalists and observers granted official visas are accompanied by minders.
The Association of South East Asian Nations has offered to send regional observers to Myanmar during the elections but there has been no official response thus far.
Last week, authorities published opaquely-worded rules that imposed tight controls on political campaigning.
Analysts say the regime plans to retain its political stake by backing several small parties and one large organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is made up of serving ministers recently retired from the army.
Critics expect the ruling generals to tightly control campaign activities of their opponents to ensure its proxies win most votes so the assemblies, of which 25 percent will be reserved for the armed forces, will be dominated by their allies.
Writing by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Jason Szep and Sanjeev Miglani