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Myanmar holds first election in 20 years, but results are preordained

Myanmar held its first multiparty election in 20 years Sunday, as citizens chose among lions, peacocks, bamboo hats, eyeglasses and other party symbols in a carefully scripted contest unlikely to bring about significant change anytime soon.

Although there was no immediate announcement of the results from Myanmar, also known as Burma, the outcome was never in question.

Opposition candidates were far outspent, outmanned and out-advertised by the two main parties backed by the country’s military rulers. Twenty-five percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military. And the government-crafted constitution and skewed election rules heavily favored the military government’s candidates.

Speaking to students in Mumbai, India, on the first stop of a four-nation Asian trip, President Obama termed Myanmar’s vote “anything but free and fair.”

For many opposition groups, the short and highly restrictive campaign period and low literacy rates in some remote areas made symbols a means to gain traction quickly.

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“I voted for the bamboo hat, I don’t like the lion,” said a Yangon travel agent Sunday, referring respectively to the main opposition party and the main pro-government party. Like many voters and observers, the agent requested anonymity.

In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, polling stations on 47th Street and 38th Street saw only a trickle of voters in the morning and were largely empty by early afternoon, while a larger station on Sule Pagoda Road had a steady trickle but no lines.

Some optimists saw Sunday’s electoral contest as the start of a process that would lead to increased economic accountability and a way to eventually chip away at the generals’ grip after 48 years in power. Myanmar has about 2,100 political prisoners.

“There are about 29 million eligible voters, and for the half that are under 30, this will be their first election,” said a writer and critic of the military government. “I say let them taste real cake. It may not be chocolate, but at least it’s sweet.”

Others said participation in the election only validated the military government. “We have a moral obligation to reject this,” said Hen Tha Myint, an executive committee member of the banned National League for Democracy. “And even if you were elected, your power would be very low.”

Sunday was declared a national holiday, leaving many shops in Yangon shuttered and the streets relatively empty. Along Bogyoke Aung San Road, a family bathed a 2-year-old with a bucket while nearby two middle-aged men played checkers using bottle caps and a makeshift board.

Exile groups and leaders of the banned National League for Democracy party issued calls to boycott the election, but it was unclear how effective those pleas were. In response to them, the government pressured citizens to turn out and vote for “candidates correctly.”

“You have to vote or the state gives you trouble,” said a Yangon money-changer. “They’ll figure out a way to win no matter what.”

Than Nyein, chairman of the National Democratic Force, the largest opposition party running in the elections, symbolized by the bamboo hat, or khamauk, told the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok by telephone that the boycott “failed miserably.” He also estimated that there was a 60% turnout, although local reports suggested that could be high.

Residents here said government workers were illegally issued ballots in advance for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the pro-government group known by its lion image and staffed by many recently decommissioned military officials.

Six of the 37 registered parties that competed for about 1,100 national and regional seats lodged complaints alleging fraud favoring the government.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been in detention for 15 of the last 21 years, urged citizens not to vote, saying she “would not dream” of taking part. Her latest house arrest is set to expire Saturday.

In recent days, security has tightened, with uniformed and undercover security more evident and the Internet slowing to a crawl, leading organizers to delay nonessential meetings.

The opposition’s performance wasn’t helped by infighting. After Suu Kyi’s party decided not to contest the election, leading to its forced disbandment, former members formed the National Democratic Force that fielded candidates in just 164 constituencies. That led to squabbling over, among other issues, who had rights to the bamboo hat symbol.

But the two pro-military parties, the Union Solidarity and Development Party that fielded candidates for all 1,171 seats, and the National Unity Party that competed for about 900 seats, also displayed differences over economic and social issues.

The national parliament will name a president, almost certain to be a former general.

Theories differ on why Senior Gen. Than Shwe, reportedly in his late 70s, created two centers of power, the president and the head of the military. Some say it was an attempt to bolster his tepid legacy as a reformer. Others say it was part of a divide-and-conquer strategy to ensure no single leader could topple him and undercut his family’s sizeable economic interests as he gradually recedes from power.

“He’s trying to avoid becoming a Dear Leader,” said one intellectual, referring to North Korea’s ailing leader Kim Jong Il. “It’s his exit strategy.”

Special correspondent Simon Roughneen in Bangkok, Thailand, contributed to this report.


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