Refugees flee Burma after poll violence

 

THOUSANDS OF refugees from Burma have fled into Thailand after fighting between ethnic rebels and Burmese government forces at the border following Sunday’s election.

The poll has been widely dismissed as a sham to boost the ruling military junta. Rights groups and commentators had widely predicted that the elections would increase conflict and instability in Burma, and on Sunday, rebels from the Karen ethnic group seized a police station and a post office in the border town of Myawaddy. At least 10 people were wounded on each side of the frontier in the fighting.

Thai officials said there were further skirmishes at the Three Pagodas Pass and streams of refugees headed into Thailand.

“There have been at least 10,000 refugees who have fled to Thailand,” Col Wannatip Wongwai, commander of Thailand’s Third Army Region responsible for security in the area, told the Associated Press. “As soon as the situation is under control, we will start sending the refugees back to Myawaddy.”

Burmese government troops appeared to have retaken control of Myawaddy, and the rebels of the Democratic Karen Buddhist army held just a few positions on the outskirts of the town.

Ethnic minorities account for about 40 per cent of Burma’s population and they said in the run up to the elections that they were unhappy at having the military regime impose its rule, warning that civil war could be the outcome. Absurd restrictions on eligibility made it impossible for pro-democracy groups to make themselves heard in the elections, which were the first in 20 years and came after 48 years of direct army rule.

While state media said voting had been peaceful and harmonious, eyewitnesses said voter turnout was low and blighted by irregularities. Europe, the US and Japan have all condemned the way the elections were held.

“It is unacceptable to steal elections, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see,” President Barack Obama said in a speech to India’s parliament in New Delhi, one of the stops on his ongoing Asian tour. He said the Burmese junta was holding its people’s aspirations hostage to its own greed and paranoia.

The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party is set to win the lion’s share of seats, despite widespread popular opposition to the military regime, which put up 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments. The largest anti-government party, the National Democratic Force, contested just 164 seats.

Detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in the last elections in 1990 but was barred from taking office, had urged a boycott of the vote.

Hundreds of potential opposition candidates were either in prison or, like Ms Suu Kyi, under house arrest.