YANGON (Reuters) - The military will keep its grip on power after Myanmar’s first election in 20 years, backed by parties that on Monday looked set to win a vote marred by fraud and denounced by U.S. President Barack Obama as stolen.
Europe and Japan also condemned the conduct of the poll.
Complex rules for Sunday’s election thwarted any chance of a pro-democracy upset as Myanmar ends half a century of direct army rule. State TV said voters “freely and happily” cast ballots, but witness accounts suggested low turn-out and irregularities in the former British colony also known as Burma.
“It is unacceptable to steal elections, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see,” Obama said in a speech to India’s parliament in New Delhi.
“Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community — especially leaders like the United States and India — to condemn it.”
Illustrating the strains multi-ethnic Myanmar has faced for decades, minority Karen rebels seized government buildings in clashes with troops in the border town of Myawaddy, causing about 12,000 people to flee into Thailand, Thai officials said.
Plumes of black smoke rose above the town, a Reuters witness said. At least 10 people were wounded in fighting involving rockets or mortar bombs.
Many ethnic groups fear the election will strengthen the constitution and destroy any chance of a degree of autonomy, stoking concern the fighting could spread to other armed ethnic groups such as the Kachin and the Wa along the border with China.
Official results trickled out over state media, showing the military and its proxy parties ahead, but a clear picture of who will control parliament could take a day or longer in the reclusive country, where timely information is rare.
Many who abstained from the vote expressed doubt they could alter the status quo.
“Voter turnout seems to be very bad,” Philippine President Benigno Aquino told reporters in the first comments by a Southeast Asian leader. “What we really wanted to happen there was broad-based participation.
With the results largely preordained, focus turned to whether Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the past 21 years in detention, will be freed when her house arrest term expires on Saturday.
The United States, Britain, the United Nations, the European Union and Japan repeated calls to free the 65-year-old pro-democracy leader whose National League for Democracy beat an army-backed party by a landslide in 1990, a result ignored by the military junta.
She urged supporters to boycott the election while about 2,100 political activists or opposition politicians are behind bars. Her youngest son, Kim Aris, flew from Britain to Bangkok, stirring speculation of her imminent release. The Myanmar embassy on Monday denied his request for an entry visa.
A statement from the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said voting conditions in Myanmar had been “insufficiently inclusive, participatory and transparent.” But it called on the junta to turn the election into “a new beginning” by freeing Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.
Japan said it was “deeply disappointed” Suu Kyi had not been freed before the vote. Myanmar should “ensure that these elections mark the start of a more inclusive phase” by releasing political detainees, the foreign ministry said.
Freeing Suu Kyi could energize pro-democracy forces. It would also revive debate over sanctions, although most experts agree more political prisoners would need to be freed before U.S. and European sanctions could be reviewed.
“Only five days more,” read a banner hanging outside the headquarters of her now-defunct party.
State television said the election was conducted “with a full sense of inclusiveness.” State media in neighbouring China also praised the vote.
“We know that handing over power to civilians in Myanmar cannot happen in one step, but we support this direction,” said China’s Global Times newspaper, a tabloid published by the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.
For the first five months of 2010, China has invested about $8 billion in Myanmar, seen as a strategic ally and trading partner, especially for its energy-hungry western provinces.
Twenty-five percent of seats in all chambers are reserved for serving generals, so army-backed parties need win just 26 percent of seats for the military and its proxies to secure a majority.
The junta’s political juggernaut, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, closely aligned with junta supremo Than Shwe, fielded 27 ministers and contested almost all the 1,163 seats that state TV said were up for grabs.
Results for just 57 seats were made public, including 55 that went uncontested. Those results and comments by officials suggest the USDP and other army-backed parties dominated. One USDP official said his party won “sweeping victories” in Mandalay and Irrawaddy, among the largest of Myanmar’s 14 divisions.
The USDP’s only real rival, the National Unity Party, also backed by the army, was running in 980 seats.
The mood in the pro-democracy camp was less ebullient. Democratic Party (Myanmar) party spokesman Hla Myint said only one of 47 candidates in his party appeared to have won.
At least six parties filed complaints to the election commission, claiming state workers were forced to vote for the USDP. The National Democratic Force, the largest pro-democracy party, accused the USDP of “widespread fraud.”