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Myanmar votes in first elections in 20 years clouded by fraud fears

Myanmar's military junta was expected to win out in national elections on Sunday, as a climate of fear and accusations of irregularity led international figures to condemn the vote as a farce.

Man places ballot in box

No one under 38 has seen a freely elected government in Myanmar

Voters in Myanmar cast ballots for the first time in two decades on Sunday with little hope of any progress toward free democracy in the authoritarian state, which was known as Burma before the military government changed the nation's name.

EU ambassador to Myanmar, David Lipman, said the situation in Yangon as "calm," with no signs of military presence at polling booths in the former capital.

Democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest as her party, which won elections in 1990 but was never recognized by the ruling junta, boycotted the vote. She is one of an estimated 2,200 political prisons whose freedom has been restricted.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi remains in detention as her pro-democracy party boycotts the vote

Speaking to students in Mumbai while on a visit to India, US President Barack Obama condemned the elections even before polls closed.

"There are elections that are being held right now in Burma that will be anything but free and fair, based on every report that we are seeing," he said. "For too long the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny."

Others nations saw the polls as a step in the right direction.

"This election is a good start for the country," Israeli Ambassador Yaron Mayer said. "After the election, Myanmar may change gradually."

Little hope for change

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political force behind the ruling military junta, was set for a large win, helped by huge financial and campaign advantages as well as an environment of fear and intimidation. Armed riot police patrolled the streets and stood guard at polling booths, and the government banned all foreign media and tightened censorship.

At least six parties had lodged complaints with the electoral commission, saying hundreds of state employees were coerced into voting for the USDP in advance balloting.

"There has been widespread fraud and malpractice committed by the USDP in advance voting across the country," said Khin Maung Swe, leader of the National Democratic Force, the largest pro-democracy party. "We democratic parties will have to take appropriate action after the elections."

Police man on street

Police restriction was tight as voters cast their ballots

It was uncertain how many of the more than 29 million eligible voters would actually turn out for the elections, as suspicious power outages across the country may have been hampering turnout.

Military keeps tight grip on parliament

Nearly 40 parties were vying for representation in the bicameral national parliament and 14 regional assemblies. However high fees for candidates kept all parties but the USDP and the National Unity Party, another proxy for the military, from even having enough candidates to win many seats. The USDP and the National Unity Party make up nearly two-thirds of the candidates on ballots.

A quarter of the seats in all chambers are reserved for military appointees, meaning any military-backed party would only need 26 percent of the remaining seats for the junta and its allies to control parliament.

The West maintains sanctions on Myanmar, while China has largely increased investments in national gas and other natural resources.

Author: Andrew Bowen (AFP, Reuters)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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