For all its boasting that elections due to be held on November 7th will usher in a new era of democracy for Burma, it appears the military junta that controls the country is keen to ensure there are few independent observers on hand as possible when the election is actually held.Over the last 10 days there have been a series of reports that the authorities there are tightening visa restrictions and threatening to expel aid workers who have been helping in the recovery of Cyclone Nargis.

Government officials have been visiting aid organisations and asking for information about the visas of international staff. One report suggests the junta is searching for around 100 foreign aid workers said to be on a list of individuals who have overstayed their visa. At the same time, state media has reported that a recently introduced and highly popular visa-on-arrival scheme is to be suspended, at least until after the polls on November 7th.

“The rumours that this was going to happen have been around for some time. We have heard from aid organsations who have been visited by officials, wanting to know about everybody,” Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK, told me this week. “The generals are taking the toughest line they can. They don’t want reporting about people being able to report about people being forced to vote for pro-junta parties, about bribes and blackmail.”

Two weeks ago, the authorities told NGOs and UN agencies that ongoing recovery efforts to help people still affected by Cyclone Nargis were to be centralised and organisations would have to obtain new memorandums of understanding (MOUs). As part of the process, they also warned that visas issued to aid staff working on Nargis-related issues would not be extended and that no new visas would be granted. As a result, said the UN, upwards of 90 international humanitarian workers now had “uncertain visa status”.

“[This] comes as a surprise, but we are appealing for an interim period with extensions of agreements and visas, during which the agencies can apply for their new MOUs,” Bishow Parajuli, the UN’s senior official in Burma, recently told a UN information service. “With the election period coming up, we know everyone will be very busy, so we are concerned that it might take too long to get new memorandums of understanding, and assistance might be interrupted, which would have negative consequences for the people in need of continued assistance.”

Cyclone Nargis, which struck in May 2008, left more than 130,000 people dead and millions requiring help with food and shelter after it devastated the Irrawaddy Delta. Under intense international pressure, the junta – widely condemned for its slow and inefficient response to the disaster – eventually relaxed visa restrictions to allow aid workers to enter the country. [I covered the aftermath of the cyclone and was witness both to the junta’s wretched response and to its efforts to keep reporters and aid workers out of the delta.]

The Irrawaddy website reported this week that the junta’s list of humanitarian staff in breach of visa regulations totals more than 100. One health worker told website that military intelligence officers had been checking offices in the delta area to identify and locate those who had overstayed.  Most NGO workers are required to leave the country every three months to renew their visas. Others find it easier to overstay their visa and pay a $5 per day fine. One foreign NGO worker who has been in Burma for three years, said: “The government does not want us to be here during the election because they are scared we will send reports about what is really happening here to people around the world.”

Also this week, the US state department issued a rare travel advisory on Burma, warning that in the last year the authorities there “had deported a number of US citizens engaged in teaching and training programs in Mandalay”. It added: “Although their activities were apolitical, their deportations demonstrate the government of Burma’s sensitivity to activities by foreigners.”

The military authorities, headed by Gen Than Shwe (above), insist that elections due to be held on November 7 will lead to full democracy, though they have been widely condemned in the west. They have also said independent election monitors will not be permitted. In the absence of professional monitors, detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party is boycotting the polls, has asked her party members to do the task unofficially.