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Updated: November 8, 2010 18:22 IST

10,000 refugees flee Myanmar post-polls fighting

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A man reads a weekly journal before he goes to downtown to sell papers on Monday in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: AP.
A man reads a weekly journal before he goes to downtown to sell papers on Monday in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: AP.

Western powers, notably the U.S. ,have dismissed Myanmar's first general election for two decades, terming it as neither free nor fair.

Post—election fighting between ethnic rebels and Myanmar government forces has sent a tide of at least 10,000 refugees across the border into Thailand.

The governor of the northern Thai province of Tak and the Thai army commander for the area said on Monday that the authorities were sheltering the refugees, who fled after ethnic Karen guerrillas attacked the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy. It was the biggest one—day tide of refugees to flee into Thailand in recent years.

The attack began on Sunday, when Myanmar held its first general election in 20 years. The results of the poll are expected to favour allies of the ruling military.

Clashes between rebels and troops

Earlier reports said clashes between rebels and Myanmar government troops raged on Monday in a key border town a day after the country’s first election in two decades, polling that critics say will the cement the military—run government’s power.

Gunfire and clashes broke out along Myanmar’s border with Thailand on Sunday in the first sign of post—election violence. At least 10 people were wounded and hundreds of panicked refugees fled into Thailand. Sporadic gunshots and mortar fire in the border town of Myawaddy continued into Monday afternoon.

Groups from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities who make up some 40 percent of the population had warned in recent days that civil war could erupt if the military tries to impose its highly centralized constitution and deprive them of rights.

Neither free nor fair: Obama

Myanmar’s secretive government has billed Sunday’s poll as a step toward democracy, but most observers have rejected it as a sham engineered to solidify military control. President Barack Obama called the vote “neither free nor fair.”

Still, some say having a parliament for the first time in 22 years could provide an opening for eventual democratic change.

There is little doubt the junta—backed Union Solidarity and Development Party will emerge with an enormous share of the parliamentary seats, despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule. It fielded 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two—house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments, while the largest anti—government party, the National Democratic Force, contested just 164 spots.

As early results trickled in, state media and the Election Commission reported that 40 junta—backed candidates had already won their races. And no irrespective of the election results, the constitution sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees.

Potential opposition candidates in prison or under house arrest

Detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in the last elections in 1990 but was barred from taking office, had urged a boycott of the vote. Hundreds of potential opposition candidates were either in prison or, like Ms. Suu Kyi, under house arrest.

Although the balloting passed peacefully in most parts of the country, the clashes in Myawaddy highlighted the unstable situation in Myanmar.

Khin Ohmar, a spokeswoman for Burma Partnership, said a faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, seized the town’s police station and post office Sunday. The group sides with the regime, but a faction has split off and along with other Karen rebels is fighting the central government.

Heavy fighting appeared to subside by Monday afternoon but sporadic shots sent refugees streaming across the Moei River into Thailand, said Samard Lyfar, the governor of Thailand’s Tak province on the border. Some bullets landed on the Thai side of the frontier.

He said five Thais and five Burmese were reported wounded.

An Associated Press photographer at the border estimated about 3,000 refugees had entered Thailand.

A Japanese photographer, Toru Yamaji, 49, was detained Sunday in Myawaddy on suspicion of illegal entry after slipping across the Thai border to try to cover the election, Japan’s embassy said. Yamaji worked for APF, a Tokyo—based news organization. Myanmar had barred foreign reporters from covering the polls.

The military has ruled Myanmar since 1962, when it was known as Burma. Decades of human rights abuses and mistreatment of its ethnic minorities have turned the Southeast Asian nation into a diplomatic outcast. The junta has squandered Myanmar’s vast natural resources through economic mismanagement and found itself allied with international pariahs like North Korea.

While Sunday’s vote was widely condemned in the Western world, it was met with virtual silence by Myanmar’s chief ally, China, and economic partners in India and Southeast Asia.

Many voters said they wanted to cast their votes against the junta’s politicians.

“I cannot stay home and do nothing,” said Yi Yi, a 45—year—old computer technician in Yangon. “I have to go out and vote against USDP. That’s how I will defy them (the junta).”

Voter turnout appeared light at many polling stations in Yangon, the country’s largest city. Some residents said they stayed home as rumors circulated that bombs would explode.

By late Sunday night, some of the opposition politicians who took part in the elections were expressing dismay at what they called widespread cheating.

Several parties say many voters were already strong—armed into casting ballots for the junta’s proxy party in a system of advance voting.

Soe Aung, deputy secretary of the Thailand—based Forum for Democracy in Burma, called on the international community not to recognize the election results “because this is a sham election” that will create “rubber—stamp” parliament for the military.

Such criticism was echoed internationally.

A statement from Obama, who is on a tour of Asia, said the elections were “neither free nor fair, and failed to meet any of the internationally accepted standards associated with legitimate elections.” He said the United States would continue a policy of both “pressure and engagement” in seeking change in Myanmar.

Some voters and experts on Myanmar said that despite the election’s problems, creating a parliament for the first time in more than two decades might provide an opening for eventual change.

“It seems likely that the very small public political space will be widened and this is probably the best outcome we can hope for from the election,” said Monique Skidmore of Australian National University.

Democracy advocates are now looking toward the coming few days. Officials have indicated that Suu Kyi could be freed from house arrest after the election.

Suu Kyi’s lawyer Nyan Win said Monday that he was certain Suu Kyi would be released Saturday, when her latest period of detention expires.

“We are making plans for a welcoming ceremony,” he said.

Suu Kyi has been locked up in her Yangon villa on and off ever since the ruling generals ignored the 1990 poll results. They hold a total of some 2,200 political prisoners.

One of Suu Kyi’s two sons, 33—year—old Kim Aris, applied for a visa Monday at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok in hopes of seeing his mother for the first time in 10 years. Aris, who lives in Britain, has repeatedly been denied visas.

Asked if he was optimistic, Aris told reporters he had “not too much hope. But there’s always a little bit of hope.” He called the elections “a load of rubbish.”

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