Myanmar votes in rare election marred by fraud fears

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Myanmar voted Sunday in its first election in 20 years as complaints of intimidation added to fears the poll was a sham to create a facade of democracy after decades of iron-fisted military rule.

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi remained locked up and two pro-junta parties were together fielding about two-thirds of the total candidates, leaving the splintered opposition little chance of success.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi swept her party to power in 1990 but the result was never recognised by the ruling generals. She has been detained for most of the last 20 years and supported a boycott of Sunday's election.

US President Barack Obama said the vote would be "anything but free and fair".

"For too long the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny," he said, using the country's former name.

Britain said the election would "mean the return to power of a brutal regime."

Yet while conditions for the vote have been widely criticised, some saw the poll as a small step towards democracy after almost five decades of autocratic rule, with opposition parties set to finally get a voice in parliament.

Despite the generals' unpopularity, their political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was widely expected to win, helped by huge financial and campaigning advantages as well as a climate of fear.

In many constituencies the poll was a two-horse race between the USDP and the National Unity Party (NUP), which is the successor to late dictator Ne Win's party and is also closely aligned with the military.

A quarter of the seats in the two-chamber national parliament and regional legislatures are reserved for military appointees whatever the outcome. It is unclear when the results will be announced.

Two opposition parties accused the USDP -- formed by ministers who retired from the military in April -- of illegally collecting advance ballots.

"My sense is that there were certainly cases of intimidation," said Britain's ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Heyn, who expressed concern about the many anecdotal reports of advance voting irregularities.

"These votes are very open to abuses," he told AFP.

The National Democratic Force (NDF), created by former members of Suu Kyi's disbanded party, said some people had complained that they were told by the USDP there was no need to vote as their ballots had already been collected.

But NDF leader Khin Maung Swe said his party was optimistic about its prospects in those areas where it was standing, with queues forming at some polling stations.

"I heard they voted mostly for the bamboo hat," he said, referring to his party's logo. "I think people wanted to vote as they haven't voted for a long time."

More than 29 million people were eligible to vote but it was uncertain how many would actually cast ballots, with apathy and disillusionment widespread in the impoverished nation.

"I don't know about any of the parties. I will vote how my mother tells me," said Myo Zaw, a 22-year-old newspaper delivery man.

The junta refused to allow international monitors or foreign media into the country for the election, and local journalists faced strict restrictions on visiting polling stations unless on an official tour.

A Japanese journalist with the Tokyo-based video and photo agency APF News was detained in the southeastern border town of Myawaddy after crossing over illegally from Thailand, a Myanmar government official said.

The intentions of junta chief Than Shwe remain shrouded in mystery. There has been speculation that he may step down as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but few expect him to relinquish real power.

The junta has said that Suu Kyi may be freed after the poll, as it attempts to deflect a barrage of criticism. The 65-year-old is just one of about 2,200 political prisoners in the autocratic nation.

Obama urged Myanmar to free Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners "immediately and unconditionally".

© 2010 AFP

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