Asia-Pacific

Burma holds first national elections for 20 years

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Media captionThe people of Burma have voted in the country's first national elections for 20 years, but the main opposition party boycotted the poll.

The people of Burma have voted in the country's first national elections for 20 years.

Ruling generals say the polls mark a transition to democratic civilian rule but critics say they are a sham.

The National League for Democracy, the main opposition party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, boycotted the vote.

Observers say voting proceeded calmly while opposition parties say it was manipulated.

"The authorities of various levels forced the people to cast advance votes," said Sai Ai Pa O - president of Shan National Democratic Party, which is fielding the fourth largest number of candidates.

"We are not allowed to send representatives to the polling stations at the time of advance voting," he said. "If the election was free and fair, I am sure we would win at least 80% of seats."

One soldier based near Rangoon told the BBC that rank-and-file troops from 10 army regiments had refused orders to vote. His testimony could not be verified.

Reports from Burma's largest city, Rangoon, suggest turnout was light at many polling stations.

Foreign journalists and monitors have not been allowed into the country for the election.

EU ambassador David Lipman said that people voted in a calm atmosphere with no visible presence either of the army or police.

Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, of the Democratic Party, said she was "quite surprised to see a lot of people come to vote. 'No Vote' campaigns have appeared to be ineffective".

US President Barack Obama, on a visit to India, said Burma's elections would be anything but free and fair.

"One of the starkest flaws of this exercise was the regime's continued detention of more than 2,100 political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, thereby denying them any opportunity to participate in the process," he said in a statement.

British ambassador to Burma Andrew Heyn told the BBC's World Today programme that the military government had missed a chance.

"These elections really represent a very badly missed opportunity," he said.

"There was a real chance here to put Burma on to a different track, both in terms of a path to democracy and to national reconciliation. And that part, that opportunity, has been badly missed. The result has been a process which is in no way free, fair nor inclusive."

Call to vote

Candidates supporting the military are expected to win the most seats.

"Every citizen who values democracy and wants democratic rule must cast their votes without fail," said a recent editorial in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

"However, some people are inciting the people to refrain from voting in the elections. They are attempting to mislead the people who are walking along the road to multi-party democracy," it said.

Opposition party officials said the pro-junta party had told voters they could lose their jobs if they failed to vote for military-backed candidates.

The two junta-linked parties are fielding by far the largest number of candidates.

The National League for Democracy - which won the last polls in 1990 but was never allowed to take power - has been forced to disband after it said it was not participating because of laws which banned Ms Suu Kyi from taking part.

Other parties that are contesting the polls have struggled to fund campaigns and have complained of harassment.

Burma has been hit in recent days by major internet disruption, which some believe is an attempt by the junta to restrict communications over the poll period.

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