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Counting begins in Myanmar’s poll
Yangon, Nov 7 (Agencies):
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Published on 7 Nov. 2010 11:46 PM IST
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Counting was under way Sunday in Myanmar’s first election in 20 years, a poll that critics say is aimed at creating a facade of democracy.
Polls closed Sunday. Riot police roamed streets in the city of Yangon, the former national capital that is also known as Rangoon.
By 10 a.m. On Sunday, a ghostly silence had descended on the polling stations in Rangoon. Local media estimated that voter turnout was low for the first general election in 20 years.
Despite having four million eligible voters in the former capital, no queues of more than 100 people were seen at polling stations in the early morning. But in other cities, such as Pegu, there were reports of as many as 1,000 voters showing up at a time.
Even so, the voters who decided to go to the polling stations were faced with fraud and intimidation in different parts of the country, according to major opposition parties.
“The polling station officials themselves ticked the “Lion” symbol of the junta’s party on behalf of the voters,” said 32-year-old Khin Maung Than, a candidate for the National Democratic Force (NDF), referring to the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
He was competing for a parliamentary seat in Kyaukse Township in Mandalay Division against the Burmese Minister of Science and Technology U Thaung, a top USDP candidate who is one of the most trusted subordinates of junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe and is believed to be overseeing the alleged nuclear weapons program.
“The voters were threatened with jail sentences if they chose to vote for the NDF,” said Khin Maung Than, adding that the public in Than Shwe’s native town were so fearful of these threats that they were believed to be voting for the USDP. “There is little or no chance of my winning here. But we showed that we dared to compete with them,” he said.
The NDF party chairman, Dr. Than Nyein, in Rangoon also said that he has received reports of voters being intimidated into voting for the USDP in at least 10 locations, including Thingangyun, Thaketa and Kayan townships in Rangoon, Thabeikkyin Township in Mandalay and Kamma Township in Magwe Division. “The polling station officials themselves urged the voters to vote for USDP,” he said. “I have asked our candidates to record those incidents and make complaints.”
The Democratic Party (Myanmar), the second-largest pro-democracy party in Rangoon, also complained about lack of proper procedures at polling stations.
“The ballot boxes were neither sealed nor tied with ropes. Half of the 10 polling staff were out for lunch in Pathein Nyunt Ward in Mingalar Tuangnyunt Township in Rangoon.
We are extremely disappointed,” said Hla Myint, the spokesman for the Democratic Party (Myanmar).
“When we asked the officials for the voter list, we were rebuffed,” he said. “Things are now in very bad shape.”
Thu Wai, the chairman of the Democratic Party (Myanmar), said there is a lack of secrecy in the voting process. “Everyone can see who you are voting for. It is a complete disappointment,” he said.
An NDF campaign manager in Burma’s second largest city, Mandalay, Dr. Hla Soe Nyunt, said that he had seen a woman, believed to be a USDP member, stuffing four ballots in a single box in Maha Aung Myay Township.
Despite these voting irregularities, the NDF was reputed to be the most popular party in Rangoon among voters leaving polling stations. “I voted for NDF because I hate the USDP,” said one.
But one of the party’s main candidates in Tavoy Township said that he has already lost hope of a fair result after villagers in the area were forced to vote for the USDP in advance.
Meanwhile, ethnic opposition parties said that they were confident of a victory since ethnic minority people would almost certainly select their own ethnic parties. Several ethnic politicians said they expected to win the vote despite the high number of alleged cases in which USDP members were forcing people to vote for their party.
The Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the All Mon Region Democracy Party and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) were reportedly doing well in their respective ethnic areas.
“We are doing very well,” said Sai Aik Pao, the SNDP chairman. “But it would have been far better if we had not faced such dishonest advance voting for the USDP.”
He said he had reported the alleged cases to Election Commission officials, and requested that the voters in question were allowed to recast their votes in secret. At the close of the day’s voting, he had still received no response.
Party representatives said they were still hoping for an unbiased and transparent vote count, but were far from positive about whether that would happen in their respective areas.
“Our greatest worry now is about vote-counting,” Than Nyein said. “Polling officials who have clearly been involved in a fraudulent voting process must be suspect in the counting process too.”
Election workers for the Union for Solidarity and Development (USD) had campaigned in the countryside, where many rural residents didn’t know how to vote. The party is supported by the governing junta of mostly of ex-military members.
“These are our candidates for this region,” a USD election worker told one resident. “It is not important to put down the name of the party, but the people have to know our symbol and make their mark right here.”
Because many citizens in rural areas know so little about the political process, election workers said they also had to show people how to vote.
“I am not just campaigning for our party,” the election worker said. “I am educating the people on how to vote. Many people don’t know how to vote.”
Their word is very influential -- especially in rural areas, where most people in the nation live.
“I don’t know anything about the election,” one woman said. “If someone tells me what to vote, I will follow that guideline.”
Opposition parties like the National Democratic Force (NDF) are complaining that a lack of money is keeping them from running and campaigning in most areas of the country. An NDF representative said the party will only contest in about 15 percent of constituencies.
Several residents said they did not expect any change as a result of the election.
“Nothing will change after the election,” a farmer said. “The government is not trying to convince us. We don’t matter to them because we are poor.”
Not that it seems to matter to him.
“I don’t care who will be elected,” he said. “I don’t know whom I will vote for because I have no knowledge of politics.”
Government critics say the election is a sham.
The country’s ruling military junta has refused to allow international monitors to oversee the election and recently overhauled Myanmar’s constitution in a way critics say is aimed at tightening the regime’s grip.
The constitution now requires more than 100 military nominees in parliament. Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962.
In October, the military regime rejected international monitoring of Sunday’s elections.
“Since we have many experiences in election, we don’t need experts on this issue,” said Thein Soe, chairman of the election commission.
“And since we have all ambassadors who are representing their countries, we don’t think we need to invite any special group to observe the election since all the ambassadors are here and can watch it on election day,” he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the ruling military junta on Sunday.
“We look at Burma today holding flawed elections that once again expose the abuses of the military junta,” Clinton said during a visit to Australia. “It’s heartbreaking because the people of Burma deserve so much better.”
Leading democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected voting in the elections, her lawyer said.
The National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, announced in March that it would not participate. A new law forced the NLD to choose between honoring Suu Kyi as its leader and risking the party being declared illegal, or ejecting Suu Kyi from the party and contesting the elections.
“Since NLD is not participating in this coming election, she doesn’t want to vote,” her lawyer Nyan Win said in October.
Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide election victory in 1990, but the military junta rejected the results.
The regime recently passed a law that made Suu Kyi ineligible to run because of a court conviction. The Nobel laureate has called the law unjust.
Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has spent most of the past 20 years under house arrest.
A Myanmar court convicted Suu Kyi in August 2009 for breaching the terms of her house arrest after American John Yettaw swam uninvited to her lakeside house in Yangon and briefly stayed there. In February, a court rejected her appeal for release.
Suu Kyi’s current house arrest is due to end in mid-November, but her lawyers are skeptical that the military junta will release her.
Her supporters have said her latest conviction was a way to remove her from the election campaign.

 
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