|Aung San Suu Kyi's party will not take part in the elections after a boycott over rules barring serving prisoners [AFP]
Myanmar has announced that its military leader, Than Shwe, will not stand in the country's upcoming elections, a diplomat at an Asian summit in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, has said.
Alberto Romulo, the Philippine foreign minister, said on Thursday that Nyan Win, his Myanmar counterpart, had confirmed the news a day earlier.
Romulo said that Nyan Win had told delegates attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Wednesday that Than Shwe, the longtime leader of the military-run country, will not be on the ballot.
"It remains to be seen [whether he will bow out], but my feeling is that he will be elected to a higher office, perhaps the presidency, something where he still [holds] control," Romulo said.
The elections on November 7, in which foreign observers and journalists will be barred, will be the country's first in two decades.
Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at the Singapore Management University,
told Al Jazeera that contrary to international claims, it is still an important election for the people of Myanmar.
"The government has given civilians some room to campaign in these polls, although very small, it is still significant for those living in Myanmar," she said.
"The international community needs to understand that any form of space here means a lot to its citizens."
It was the first time the reclusive government appeared to confirm that Than Shwe would not participate in the national polls.
Zaw Oo, a lecturer in international development at Thailand's Chang Mai University, said Than Shwe's decision not to stand in the elections could be partly because of old age.
"He's a very ageing leader. And I also think that he thought that it may be safer for his own safety, and the safety of his family, just to stay on [in] the military post to wait and see what comes after the elections," he told Al Jazeera from Bangkok, the Thai capital.
"So I think it is a safety measure for his own security."
Oo also said astrology "plays a very big part in shaping the politics of Burma".
"Unfortunately, it may also be that he is taking the dictates of astrologers," he said.
Than Shwe has never spoken about his future and no officials have ever raised the issue of his retirement or whether he would run in elections.
Speculation was rife that he could become the next president, which is not an elected position.
Calling on Myanmar's military rulers to free thousands of political prisoners ahead of the elections, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said the people of Myanmar had a right to free and fair elections.
"I believe that it's not too late for Myanmar authorities to release all political prisoners so that this election ... will be more inclusive and participatory and credible," he told Al Jazeera.
"I am going to have a meeting with Prime Minister Thein Sein in Hanoi and will urge him again [to free the prisoners]. This requires efforts by all the international community."
Myanmar put on a fresh face at the Asean summit, unveiling a redesigned flag and new national name less than two weeks before the long-awaited polling.
But many fear the makeover is merely a facade to mask an election already being dubbed a sham.
The elections are supposed to be a big step forward in the country's so-called roadmap to democracy following five decades of military rule.
Critics, however, say the military government has already taken steps to block transparency and ensure that the military remains in power by repressing the country's main opposition party and limiting campaigning.
Welsh said: "I am of the view that this is an important election. There have been only three major elections in ... Myanmar's history 1960, 1990 and 2010.
"This is the first time that one third of the voters in Myanmar will have any chance at all.
"And when we look at the seats themselves, yes, there are serious serious problems in terms of things that have been raised in the press.
"NDL is not allowed to participate; a number of other parties are not allowed to participate; the process is not completely free and fair, but 46 per cent of the seats are competitive."
Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon who has been imprisoned or under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years, is expected to be up for release on November 13, just six days after the election.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party (NLD) will not be taking part in the elections, having boycotted the vote over rules barring serving prisoners, including the Nobel peace laureate herself, from running.
Romulo said he had doubts Suu Kyi would be freed.
"We all pressed him to release Aung San Suu Kyi, but he [Than Shwe] was noncommittal," he said, adding that Myanmar's foreign minister agreed to follow the country's laws.
"I am sceptical about that," Romulo said he told Nyan Win.
"She has been sentenced and after that she is re-sentenced again with another, so there's no end to it."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies