Myanmar holds first elections in 20 years

Voters in Myanmar’s first elections in 20 years cast their ballots Sunday amid a barrage of criticism that the balloting was rigged in favour of the ruling military, as well as hope that some change toward democratic reform might nonetheless follow.

YANGON, Myanmar — Voters in Myanmar’s first elections in 20 years cast their ballots Sunday amid a barrage of criticism that the balloting was rigged in favour of the ruling military, as well as hope that some change toward democratic reform might nonetheless follow.

The junta did not disclose when the results would be announced, saying only that they could come “in time.”

It was almost certain, however, that through pre-election engineering the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party would emerge victorious despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule.

The streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, were unusually quiet and voter turnout appeared light at many polling stations. Some residents said they were staying home as rumours circulated that bombs would explode.

About 40,000 polling stations across the Southeast Asian country opened at 6 a.m. and closed 10 hours later. Riot police were deployed at some road junctions, but soldiers were not seen near balloting sites.

The USDP fielded 1,112 candidates for a total of 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments. Its closest rival, the National Unity Party backed by supporters of Myanmar’s previous military ruler, had 995 candidates.

The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, contested just 164 spots.

Election rules were written to benefit the USDP, and hundreds of potential opposition candidates — including 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 — are under house arrest or in prison.

Several parties have complained that voters were strong-armed into voting for the pro-junta party, with some threatened that they would lose their jobs if they did not.

Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, general secretary of the Democratic Party, said there had been widespread cheating by the USDP.

“There have been reports that one person has cast votes for his whole family,” he said. The USDP also threatened farmers with arrest if they did not vote for it, he said. Whatever the results, the constitution sets aside 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for military appointees.

Voters expressed both fear and defiance.

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

“I voted for the (democracy party) in 1990. This is my second time to vote,” said a 60-year-old man, Tin Aung, when asked which party he had voted for.

He then looked around and added, “I am really scared.”

Others said they had abstained from voting because that would legitimize the elections.

President Barack Obama called the elections “anything but free and fair” and urged people to speak out for human rights in countries like Myanmar, also called Burma.

“For too long, the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny,” he told students in Mumbai, India, on his first stop on an Asian trip.

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the elections a reflection of “heartbreaking” repressive conditions in the country.

Yangon-based diplomats from the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Italy turned down a government invitation to take “exploratory tours” of the voting Sunday due to rules applying to the visits. The junta earlier banned foreign journalists and international poll monitors from the elections.

“These elections are going to be neither free, nor fair, or inclusive. There is nothing in these elections that could give us grounds for optimism,” British Ambassador Andrew Heyn told The Associated Press on the eve of the balloting, which he described as a “badly missed opportunity” for democratic change.

Despite the storm of criticism, some voters and experts on Myanmar said the election could herald a modicum of change from the decades of iron-fisted rule and gross economic mismanagement of the resource-rich nation.

“The elections, for all their farcical elements, have already achieved something: Burmese people are listening and talking more about politics than they have for a long time,” said Monique Skidmore of the Australian National University. “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.”

Democracy advocates are also hopeful that Suu Kyi will be freed from house arrest sometime after the election, perhaps as early as Nov. 13. Although among the country’s 29 million eligible voters, she said she would not cast a ballot Sunday.

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

The junta has also been criticized for its brutal treatment of ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy.

Amid rising tension before the elections, the junta cancelled voting in 3,400 villages in ethnic minority areas and increased its military presence in the countryside. About 1.5 million of the country’s 59 million people were thereby disenfranchised.

Some ethnic minority groups, like the Karen, have been fighting the government since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948. Others, including the powerful Wa and Kachin, had forged cease-fire agreements that now appear in jeopardy amid fears that the constitution activated by the elections will quash their hopes for a federal system.

With ethnic minorities making up about 40 per cent of the population, the outbreak of a full-scale civil war would have disastrous economic, political and humanitarian consequences. Some 600,000 ethnic minority people have already sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

“We fear an increase in violence in many parts of Burma after the election and more refugees fleeing to the border with Thailand. There will be no change, no end to suffering, for the people on the ground,” said Charm Tong, an exiled activist from the Shan minority.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Red Deer jumps to 449 active COVID-19 cases on Sunday

1,516 new cases identified in Alberta

The QEII was closed Sunday morning due to a pole fire. (Photo courtesy City of Red Deer)
UPDATE: QEII near Red Deer reopens

The QEII has been reopened after being closed due to a pole… Continue reading

Innisfail RCMP are investigating a single-vehicle crash that happened west of Bowden on March 21, 2021. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Bashaw RCMP investigate fatal collision in central Alberta

Bashaw RCMP are investigating after a fatal collision Saturday afternoon. Police were… Continue reading

A damaged unicorn statue is shown in a field outside of Delia, Alta. in this undated handout photo. It's not often police can report that a unicorn has been found, but it was the truth Saturday when RCMP said a stolen, stainless-steel statue of the mythical beast had been located in a field not far from where he'd been taken. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Mounties get their unicorn; stolen statue of mythical beast found in Alberta field

DELIA, Alta. — It’s not often police can report that a unicorn… Continue reading

Investigators from the Vancouver Police Department were in Chilliwack Saturday, collecting evidence connected to a double homicide. (file photo)
Police investigate shooting death of man outside downtown Vancouver restaurant

Vancouver police say one man was killed in what they believe was… Continue reading

Dr. E. Kwok administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a recipient at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start registering people 18 years and older for COVID-19 vaccines

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government says it’s inviting people 18 years… Continue reading

San Jose's Tomas Hertl, center, celebrates with teammates Patrick Marleau, left, and Rudolfs Blacers, right, after Hertl scored a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Friday, April 16, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
Patrick Marleau set to break Gordie Howe’s games record

For Patrick Marleau, the best part about Monday night when he is… Continue reading

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Half of U.S. adults have received at least one COVID-19 shot

WASHINGTON — Half of all adults in the U.S. have received at… Continue reading

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Federal government to send health-care workers to Ontario, Trudeau says

MONTREAL — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says federal departments and some Canadian… Continue reading

People cross a busy street in the shopping district of Flushing on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York. Access to the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States is growing by the day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kathy Willens
Despite COVID-19 vaccines, Americans in D.C. not feeling celebratory — or charitable

WASHINGTON — This might make Canadians jealous of their American cousins for… Continue reading

A man pays his respects at a roadside memorial in Portapique, N.S. on Thursday, April 23, 2021. RCMP say at least 22 people are dead after a man who at one point wore a police uniform and drove a mock-up cruiser, went on a murder rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Memorial service in Nova Scotia marks one year since mass shooting started

TRURO, N.S. — A memorial service is planned for today in central… Continue reading

In this April 23, 2016, photo, David Goethel sorts cod and haddock while fishing off the coast of New Hampshire. To Goethel, cod represents his identity, his ticket to middle class life, and his link to one the country's most historic industries, a fisherman who has caught New England's most recognized fish for more than 30 years. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
‘It’s more than just a fish:’ Scientists worry cod will never come back in N.L.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The latest assessment of Atlantic cod stocks, whose… Continue reading

Most Read