Army-backed parties set to sweep Burma polls

Burma’s military will keep its grip on power after the country’s first election in 20 years, backed by parties that on Monday looked set to win a vote marred by fraud and condemned by the United States, Europe and Japan.

Complex rules for Sunday’s election thwarted any chance of a pro-democracy upset as Burma ends half a century of direct army rule. State TV said voters “freely and happily” cast ballots, but witness accounts suggested low turn-out and irregularities.

Illustrating the strains multi-ethnic Burma has faced for decades, a clash erupted between ethnic minority Karen rebels and government soldiers in the border town of Myawaddy, causing about 12 000 people to flee into Thailand, Thai officials said.

By afternoon, plumes of black smoke rose above the town, a Reuters witness said. At least 10 people were wounded in the fighting, which involved rockets or mortar bombs, while deaths were reported.

Many ethnic groups fear the election will strengthen Burma’s constitution and destroy any chance of achieving a degree of autonomy, stoking concern the fighting could spread to other armed ethnic groups such as the Kachin and the Wa along the border with China.

Official election results trickled out over state media, showing the military and its proxy parties ahead, but a clear picture of who won control of Parliament could take a day or longer in the reclusive country where timely information is rare.

“Voter turnout seems to be very bad,” Philippine President Benigno Aquino told reporters in the first comments by a South-east Asian leader on the election. “What we really wanted to happen there was broad-based participation.

Many who abstained from the vote expressed doubt they could alter the authoritarian status quo in a poll that both US President Barack Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague dismissed in separate statements as neither free nor fair.

No one expects an imminent end to Western sanctions. But the poll may reduce Burma’s isolation at a time when neighbouring China has dramatically increased investment in natural gas and other resources in the former British colony.

For the first five months of this year, China has invested about $8-billion in Burma, which it sees as a strategic ally and important trading partner, especially for its energy-hungry western provinces.

Focus on Suu Kyi
With the results largely preordained, focus turned to whether Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the past 21 years in detention, will be freed when her house-arrest term expires on Saturday.

The US, Britain, the European Union and Japan repeated calls to free the 65-year-old pro-democracy leader, whose National League for Democracy beat an army-backed party by a landslide in 1990, a result ignored by the military junta.

She urged supporters to boycott Sunday’s election while about 2 100 political activists or opposition politicians are behind bars. Her youngest son, Kim Aris, flew from Britain to Bangkok, stirring speculation of her imminent release. The Burma embassy on Monday denied his request for an entry visa.

The Japanese government said it was “deeply disappointed” Suu Kyi had not been freed ahead of the vote. Burma should “ensure that these elections mark the start of a more inclusive phase” by releasing political detainees, Japan’s foreign ministry said.

Freeing Suu Kyi could energise pro-democracy forces. It would also revive debate over sanctions, although most experts agree more political prisoners would need to be freed before US and European sanctions could be reviewed.

“Only five days more,” read a banner hanging outside the headquarters of her now-defunct party.

State television said the election was conducted “with a full sense of inclusiveness”. State media in neighbouring China also praised the vote.

“We know that handing over power to civilians in Burma cannot happen in one step, but we support this direction,” said China’s Global Times newspaper, a tabloid published by the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.

Military dominance
In the new Parliament, 25% of seats in all chambers are reserved for serving generals, so army-backed parties need to win just 26% of seats for the military and its proxies to secure a majority.

The junta’s political juggernaut, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), closely aligned with junta supremo Than Shwe, fielded 27 ministers in Sunday’s poll and contested almost all of the 1 163 seats that state TV said were up for grabs.

Results for just 57 seats were made public, including 55 that went uncontested. Those results and comments by officials suggest the USDP and other army-backed parties dominated. One USDP official said his party won “sweeping victories” in Mandalay and Irrawaddy, among the largest of Burma’s 14 divisions.

The USDP’s only real rival, the National Unity Party (NUP), also backed by the army, was running in 980 seats.

While the NUP and USDP are both conservative and authoritarian, they may pursue opposing policies in Parliament, ultimately fostering democratic debate over the longer term.

At least six parties filed complaints to the election commission, claiming state workers were forced to vote for the USDP. The National Democratic Force (NDF), the largest pro-democracy party, accused the USDP of “widespread fraud”.

Thirty-seven parties are contesting places in a bicameral national Parliament and 14 regional assemblies. Except for the USDP and NUP, none has enough candidates to win because of restrictions such as high fees for each candidate. — Reuters

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