Thousands flee Burma border clash, as votes are counted

Thai soldiers guard the border as thousands of Burmese flee fighting

Thousands have fled across the Burmese border to escape clashes between troops and ethnic Karen rebels, a day after the first election in 20 years.

Thai officials said more than 10,000 people had fled the fierce fighting in and around the town of Myawaddy.

It erupted on Sunday in a protest linked to the election.

The poll, which was boycotted by the main opposition group, was marred by campaign restrictions, reports of irregularities and low turnout.

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said voting conditions had been "insufficiently inclusive, participatory and transparent".

In a statement, he called on the ruling generals to turn the poll into a "a new beginning" by freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 political prisoners.

Votes are still being counted, but two parties closely linked to the ruling military junta are expected to do well.

The poll is the first in Burma since 1990, when Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy secured an overwhelming victory but was never allowed to take power.

Democratic Karen Buddhist Army

Map
  • The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA ) split from the Karen National Union - whose armed wing is fighting the government - in 1994
  • The DKBA is allied with the Burmese army
  • One DKBA faction, known as Brigade 5, rejects government demands to become part of a centrally-controlled border force

The junta says the election marks the transition from military rule to a civilian democracy, but the poll has been widely condemned as a sham. Western governments say it was neither free nor fair.

Despite this, some analysts say the election - although deeply flawed - could mark the start of a process of democratisation, by giving opposition lawmakers a voice, however limited, in the institutional decision-making process.

Border force

Tensions surrounding the poll spilled into violence on Monday in the town of Myawaddy, on the Thai border, in a clash between a Karen rebel faction and government troops.

Ethnic groups in Burma have been demanding - without success - greater regional autonomy from the majority Burman-led central government since independence from Britain in 1948. Many have suffered persecution at the hands of the government.

A splinter group of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, known as Brigade 5, briefly occupied a police station and polling booth on Sunday in a show of opposition to the government's plan to incorporate ethnic armies into a centrally-controlled border force.

In response, Burmese government troops gathered and clashes broke out early on Monday.

There were reports of stray shells landing on the Thai side of the border, injuring at least eight people, and unconfirmed reports of deaths.

Clashes have now spread further south to the Three Pagodas Pass and the Thai army says it is sending reinforcements to the area.

BURMA ELECTION: NUMBERS

  • First election in 20 years
  • Total of 37 parties contesting the polls
  • 29 million voters eligible to cast ballots
  • 1.5 million ethnic voters disenfranchised because areas deemed too dangerous for voting to take place
  • About 3,000 candidates of whom two-thirds are running for junta-linked parties
  • No election observers, no foreign journalists

Thai officials say more than 10,000 refugees, mostly women and children, have crossed the border to escape the fighting.

"Army, police and civil authorities have prepared an area to accommodate them 5km (three miles) from the border," said Samart Loyfah, governor of Thailand's Tak province.

Low turnout

It is not yet clear when election results will be released.

Burma's state-run media has described the poll as a successful, smoothly-run process.

Voters were electing candidates to a two-chamber parliament and 14 regional assemblies.

More than two-thirds of the 3,000 candidates were running for two parties closely linked to the military junta.

Turnout for the election was reportedly low.

A BBC correspondent in Burma's largest city, Rangoon, described the atmosphere on Sunday as subdued, with no queues at polling stations.

Some voters told the BBC they could not vote in private, while opposition groups alleged many state employees had been pressured to vote in advance for the main pro-military party.

BURMA ELECTION: PARTIES

  • Union Solidarity and Development Party: Junta-linked party contesting every seat - about 1,160
  • National Unity Party: Junta-linked party contesting 999 seats
  • National Democratic Force: Pro-democracy party contesting 163 seats
  • Shan Nationalities Democratic Party: Largest of the ethnic parties, contesting 157 seats

The NLD, and party leader Ms Suu Kyi - who remains under house arrest - boycotted the polls because of election laws they said were unfair.

The constitution reserves more than a quarter of seats in the new parliament for the army.

Dozens of senior officers have recently "retired" to stand for the government-approved Union Solidarity and Development Party - by far the strongest party.

The combined force of these two groups will likely mean that they have an effective veto over legislation.

Western nations have criticised the conduct of the election; US President Barack Obama said it had not met "internationally accepted standards", while the UK said the results were "a foregone conclusion".

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