Military-backed party claims overwhelming victory in Burma poll

Burma's main military-backed party yesterday claimed an overwhelming victory in the country's contentious election, as refugees were forced to flee clashes between rebels and government soldiers near the Thai border returned home. The fighting has pushed around 20,000 refugees across the border to Thailand since it started on Sunday, when Burma held its first national elections for 20 years. Ethnic Karen fighters, who have been battling the government since the country won independence from Britain in 1948, boycotted the election and are resisting attempts to turn them into a border guard force. Government troops cleared the rebels from the eastern town of Myawaddy yesterday and told refugees it was safe to return.

In Rangoon, the country's two largest anti-government parties conceded defeat after an official from the military junta's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said it had won up to 80 per cent of seats. Opposition parties pointed to many irregularities in the election and several lodged complaints with the election commission, claiming civil servants were forced to vote for the USDP in advance balloting.

The block votes wiped out many victories that the largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force (NDF), believed it had secured. It was left with just 16 seats, nearly all in Rangoon.

"We took the lead at the beginning but the USDP later came up with so-called advance votes and that changed the results completely, so we lost," Khin Maung Swe, an NDF leader said.

The results ensure the continued dominance of the military and that there will be no end to authoritarian rule, or the economic mismanagement that has ruined Burma. While the opposition may claim a moral victory, its dream of forming a powerful bloc in parliament is dead. Aside from the USDP's sweeping victory, the military had reserved a quarter of seats for its own appointees and the new cabinet may be made up entirely of non-elected officials. The party of Burma's most famous democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, boycotted the vote because of the unfairness of the electoral rules. Some observers believe the USDP's victory could encourage senior general Than Shwe to free the 65-year-old, whose current term of house arrest expires on Saturday.

There was no obvious reaction in Rangoon, Burma's largest city, to the results. But according to online posts, many people were quietly seething.

"Whatever we did, the decision was already made," read one post from a Rangoon resident on Facebook.