YANGON, Myanmar – Voting began in Myanmar's first election in 20 years Sunday amid both a barrage of criticism that the balloting was rigged in favor of the ruling military and hope that some change toward democratic reform might nonetheless follow.
About 40,000 polling stations across the Southeast Asian country opened shortly after 6 a.m. (2330 GMT) and were to close 10 hours later. The regime left everyone guessing as to when results would be announced, saying only they could come "in time."
However, it was almost certain that through pre-election engineering the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party would emerge as the victor despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule.
The USDP is fielding 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments. Its closest rival, the National Unity Party with 995 candidates, is backed by supporters of Myanmar's previous military ruler.
The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, is contesting just 164 spots.
Election rules were clearly written to benefit the USDP, and hundreds of potential opposition candidates — including pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi — are under house arrest or in prison. Several parties have complained that voters have been strong-armed into voting for the junta's proxy party.
Whatever the results, the constitution sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees.
"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.
Yangon-based diplomats from the European Union — British, French, German, Italian — as well as the United States turned down an invitation from the government to take "exploratory tours" Sunday due to rules applying to the visits. The regime earlier banned foreign journalists and international poll monitors from the election.
Despite the storm of criticism, some voters and experts on Myanmar, also known as 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's now disbanded National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in Myanmar's last election in 1990. But the ruling generals ignored the results and have kept her locked up in her Yangon villa on-and-off ever since. They also hold some 2,200 political prisoners in what has been dubbed the "Burmese gulag."
The regime has also been criticized for its brutal treatment of ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy.
In the wake of rising tension before the election, the junta canceled voting in 3,400 villages in ethnic minority areas and has increased its military presence in the countryside. About 1.5 million of the country's 59 million people have thus been disenfranchised.
Some ethnic minority groups, like the Karen, have been fighting the government since the country gained independence from Great 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 would 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.