Military rulers cancel voting for 1.5m people in areas of unrest

Election authorities in military-ruled Burma have cancelled voting in Sunday's elections in more areas where restive ethnic minorities are dominant. The Union Election Commission cancelled balloting in the elections in 12 more village tracts in six constituencies in Kayah state "as conditions are not conducive to holding a free and fair election", according to an official notice. Each tract comprises several villages.

The announcement in the official gazette gave no further explanation for the action, but exile Burmese media have reported recent clashes between ethnic Karenni groups and government troops in Kayah state. In September, the commission cancelled voting in about 300 village tracts in 33 townships where restive ethnic minorities are dominant. The move is believed to have disenfranchised about 1.5 million people in more than 3,400 villages, though official numbers are not available.

The September announcement was the first sign from the government that the country's first elections in two decades may not go as smoothly as desired, despite the junta's tight control over their organisation and rules. Pro-democracy groups, as well as Western nations and human rights groups, have already criticised the elections as unfair and undemocratic.

The new announcement said the elections had been cancelled in several townships in Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon and Shan states, including four townships in the Wa self-administered division.

Ethnic groups in those areas, which are mostly along the eastern and northern borders, disagree with the ruling junta over its insistence that they integrate their semi-autonomous security forces into the government's border guard forces. Many of the groups have sought more autonomy since Burma's independence in 1948, and the government maintains uneasy ceasefires with them.

Yesterday, the British ambassador to Burma said that the government viewed elections this weekend as a "badly missed opportunity" that offer no optimism for democratic change in the foreseeable future.

Ambassador Andrew Heyn said Britain will continue to press for progress in Burma. "These elections are going to be neither free, nor fair, nor inclusive," Mr Heyn said in Bangkok. "There is nothing in these elections themselves that could give us grounds for optimism."

Britain, the United States and the EU have long maintained economic sanctions against Burma to pressure the military government to improve human rights and release the detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, along with 2,100 other political prisoners.

The junta has ignored those demands. It bills the election as a key step in its "road-map to democracy", but the polls are widely seen as a ploy to perpetuate its control under the guise of civilian rule.