THE first national and provincial elections in Burma in 20 years began slowly, blighted by accusations of fraud and electoral unfairness.
With armed police patrolling the streets and businesses closed for the weekend in cities including the capital, Naypyidaw, observers reported that voting was desultory.
In Rangoon, some voters said they had been pressured to cast a ballot. “People seem to be voting because they feel they have to, and they are concerned their vote can be tracked back to them,” said the British ambassador in Burma, Andrew Heyn.
Roundly condemned as a sham and a farce, the elections are widely seen as an attempt to provide a fig-leaf of democracy for the ruling military regime. The regime-backed political parties dominate the electoral field, and one-quarter of seats in national and provincial legislatures have been reserved for the military.
The two regime-backed parties, the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the National Unity Party, have capitalised on stringent electoral rules – such as steep registration fees and censored campaign materials and speeches – which have further reduced the chances of the small and struggling opposition forces to make inroads.
An estimated 300,000 voters from Burma’s ethnic minorities were disenfranchised when the regime decided it was unsafe to conduct the poll in certain towns in conflict zones.
In many constituencies only the USPD and the NUP were able to field candidates, and the election result appears to be a foregone conclusion: a resounding victory for the military regime and its aligned parties.
Even so, the USDP has been accused of illegally using coercion to collect advance ballots.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which won the 1990 elections by a landslide, has been formally dissolved by the ruling State Peace and Development Council military regime, prompting many activists to urge voters to boycott the poll.
Ms Suu Kyi, whose 1990 victory was annulled by the military regime, is due to be released from house arrest on Saturday, although many of her supporters remain doubtful she will be freed – or for long.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the elections had exposed the abuses of the junta.
“It’s heartbreaking because the people of Burma deserve so much better,” she told an audience at the University of Melbourne, adding a note of muted optimism.
“We hope that perhaps out of these elections some leaders will emerge who know that Burma has to take a different track and cannot continue to do the same thing and realise the potential of their people.”
In Bangkok, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, told The Australian there had been a spike in human rights violations in Burma before the elections, and he was concerned about the potential for conflict after the poll.
Hope lay, he said, in the pressure ASEAN nations could bring to bear on Burma.
“I would suggest that, if the ASEAN countries hadn’t put the pressure on, we wouldn’t be having an election today,” he said.