Few Surprises in First Poll in 20 Years

“People were busy watching Al-Jazeera and DVB (Democratic Voice of Burma) TV, but not about the vote,” a Buddhist monk here remarked at the end of election day on Sunday, the first general poll to be held in this military-ruled country in  20 years.

After all, they expected few surprises in the vote for a two-chamber parliament and 14 regional assemblies, contested by some 3,000 candidates.

What became news for many, rather than the vote itself, were reports of fighting between Burmese and ethnic Karen soldiers in Myawaddy, a town on Burma’s border with Thailand. The Karen forces had attacked government buildings in Myawaddy to protest the election but media reports said the Burmese military had retaken control of the town.

On Tuesday, the main military-backed political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said that it won about 80 percent of the votes. More than two-thirds of the candidates were fielded by two political parties linked to the military junta, including the USDP.

Official results have yet to be announced. Voter turnout figures were unclear but some media estimates put it at as low was 35 percent in some areas.

The USDP had widely been expected to emerge the victor in an election that opposition parties and many foreign governments called a sham designed to cloak military rule in civilian cover. China however expressed support for the poll as being part of a transition to an elected government.

Several opposition groups and independent observers reported irregularities, in particular the practice of “advance voting.” In advance voting, government workers, including soldiers, were brought to voting booths to cast their ballots days before Nov. 7, a practice that critics say was to ensure they voted for pro-military choices.

“I think the early vote is a kind of instructed, advanced attempt that was something that the polling staff could not reject,” said 25-year-old Kyaw Thura, one of more than 3,000 candidates to seek office in the election.

On voting day, Kyaw Thura and his supporters in Khayan constituency observed the conduct of the poll and complained of different forms of fraudnot just early voting, but forced votes.

In some cases, villagers became independent poll observers and informed candidates of irregularities they encountered, either by phoning them to report these or sending anonymous letters with complaints of local authorities forcing them to vote for the USDP.

“In my thinking, 99 percent of the early votes went to the military proxy party, USDP. Opposition candidates can win for sure—if early votes are not counted,” stressed Kyaw Thura.

In an interview, a reporter said he witnessed polling officials casting votes for the USDP behalf of voters in Tha Byu village in Kwangyangone Township, about an hour’s travel from Rangoon. “Within half an hour, I found that only two people had cast votes for another party by themselves,” he said.

In some cases, poll officials instructed villagers to vote for the USDP. Nu from Kawkareik Township in Karen State said “local authorities asked me to tick a mark beside ‘USDP party’.”

A 20-year-old worker, Aung Tun, said that trishaw drivers and construction workers went to the polling stations in a slum area in Moulmein, capital of Mon state, after 6 am Sunday clad in new white shirts and sarong, the traditional Burmese attire.

“The USDP provided new shirts for us to join their campaign. They asked me to wear this when I go for voting,” he said.

Media reports said at least six opposition parties had filed complaints with the Election Commission, and some have said they were leading in the counting at the polling stations but lost at the commission level.

Naing Aung Chan, a candidate from the Mon ethnic group, sent two complaints against early votes and the USDP’s campaign during the election period.

In other places, there were more polling staff and election commission people and just a few voters. Some reported not being able to vote in privacy.

“People were shouting at each other and ticking the ballots openly on the table,” said a 19-year-old student who took part in his first election in a village near Pathein.

In his voting station, Rangoon resident Kyaw Kyaw Zin recalled seeing a table divided into three areas and covered with a foot-high plastic card to allow three voters to cast votes at one time. “(But) there was no privacy at all.”

“Many voters in my place were poor and illiterate. They could hardly even find their names on the list. They were very confused about the voting process,” he recalled. “They just followed what officials told them to do.”

As for his own choice on voting day, Kyaw Kyaw Zin said he did express his wish as a Burmese citizen, but in a different way.

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