YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Voters in the secretive military-ruled nation of Myanmar cast their first ballots in two decades on Sunday, Nov. 7, as slim hopes for democratic reform faced an electoral system engineered to ensure that the power will remain in the hands of the junta and its political proxies.
There was little doubt that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party would 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.
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, urged a boycott of the vote.
Hundreds of potential opposition candidates were either in prison or, like Suu Kyi, under house arrest.
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.
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 the 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 were staying home as rumors circulated that bombs would explode.
By late last Sunday night, some of the opposition politicians who took part in the elections were expressing dismay at what they called widespread cheating.
The junta and its proxy party “are so shameless in their utter craving for power that they brazenly rig votes with complete disregard for the people and the credibility of the election,”
said Khin Maung Swe, a top official with the National Democratic Force. “They are desperately robbing votes.”
Several parties say many voters were already strong-armed into casting ballots for the junta’s proxy party in a system of advance voting. Khin Maung Swe said there were also problems with voter rolls and ballot counting, though he gave no details.
It was not clear when full results would be announced — officials would only say they would come “in time.” And no matter what the election results are, the constitution sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees.
Soe Aung, deputy secretary of the Thailand-based Forum for Democracy in Burma, called on the international community to not recognize the election results “because this is a sham election. … The parliament which will [be formed] after this election will be a rubber-stamp parliament to endorse what another military council will be doing against the will of its own people.”
Such criticism was echoed internationally.
U.S. President Barack Obama told college students in Mumbai, India, that the elections were “anything but free and fair.” Obama, who is on a tour of Asia, said that “for too long the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny.”
Few observers expected surprises from the election.
“The only real surprise result would be that one pro-establishment party would beat an even more pro-establishment party,” British Ambassador Andrew Heyn told The Associated Press, referring to the USDP’s closest rival, the National Unity Party, which is backed by supporters of the country’s previous military ruler.
Heyn called the election a “huge missed opportunity” for democratic change.
Some voters and experts on Myanmar said that despite the election’s wealth of problems, creating a parliament for the first time in more than two decades might provide an opening for eventual change in this deeply troubled nation, which despite its political isolation has become a crossroads for Asian trade and an important natural gas supplier to energy-starved China and India.
“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.”
Optimists say that even a handful of opposition parliamentarians could allow for limited government oversight, and pave the way for more political change eventually.
It was difficult to discern any voting trends. The regime earlier banned foreign journalists and international poll monitors from the election. Riot police were deployed at a handful of key junctions, though the junta appeared anxious to keep its massive security apparatus in the background on voting day. Very few soldiers could be seen on the streets of the capital.
Democracy advocates are now looking toward the coming few days. Officials have indicated that Suu Kyi could be freed from house arrest sometime after the election.
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.
While some analysts see Suu Kyi as increasingly marginalized, Skidmore dismissed that idea.
“From the moment she is released, she will begin campaigning against the military regime, the new constitution, and the results of the elections,” Skidmore said. She added that Suu Kyi’s ability to mobilize activists and make use of the Internet and mobile telephones “will hasten the changes that will come from the election.” ♦