Burma Holds Rare Elections Amid Heavy Criticism

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

The junta did not announce 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, Burma's largest city, were unusually quiet and early voter turnout appeared light at many polling stations. Some residents said they were staying home as rumors circulated that bombs would explode.

Riot police were deployed at some road junctions, but no soldiers were seen near the balloting sites.

The USDP is fielding 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 Burma's previous military ruler, has 995 candidates.

The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, is contesting 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 have been strong-armed into voting for the pro-junta party.

Whatever the results, the constitution sets aside 25 percent 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 Obama called the elections "anything but free and fair" and urged people to speak out for human rights in countries like Burma, also called Myanmar.

"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 Burma 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, the Noble Peace Prize laureate 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 canceled 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 percent 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 neighboring 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.