Fighting continues at Myanmar border after elections; 20,000 refugees flee to Thailand

YANGON, Myanmar — Fighting between ethnic rebels and government troops rumbled on for a third day Tuesday as activists warned that the violence, which has sparked a refugee exodus from Myanmar, could escalate in the aftermath of contentious elections.

Clashes at key points along the Thai-Myanmar border since Sunday have sent some 20,000 panicked villagers into Thailand, which already shelters a quarter-million ethnic minority refugees from brutal campaigns by the Myanmar army.

The exodus underlined Myanmar's vulnerability to unrest following the country's first election in two decades on Sunday, which was billed by the ruling junta as a key stage in its self-proclaimed road to democracy. Its political opponents and Western nations have decried the vote as unfair and repressive.

President Barack Obama said Monday it was unacceptable for Myanmar's government to "steal an election" and hold the people's aspirations hostage to the regime's greed and paranoia. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the voting was not inclusive enough and lacked transparency.

For a third day Tuesday, sporadic gunfire erupted in Myawaddy. Refugees told Thai officials, however, that government forces had retaken the Myanmar border town and that the fighting was likely to end, according to Thai Gov. Samard Loyfar of adjacent Tak province.

"We have to evaluate the situation to see if the clashes have actually ended before sending them back," he said.

By Tuesday morning, some 20,000 refugees had fled into Thailand, said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. He said the government was working with humanitarian groups to tend to them and remained concerned about the violence escalating.

"At the moment, officers along the border have beefed up security, especially at the spots where clashes occurred," Panitan said.

Myanmar has been ruled by the military near-continuously since 1962, and rebellions by its ethnic minorities predate its independence from Britain in 1948.

Sunday's election was the first in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since a 1990 vote won by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, which was barred from taking power and boycotted the new polls. The regime says the election heralds a transition to civilian rule, but junta-backed candidates are virtually certain to dominate the new parliament.

Several human rights groups warned of possible civil war as ethnic groups are pressured by the government to accept a new constitution that offers them little autonomy. Several groups that field potent guerrilla armies refused to take part in the election.

"If the dictatorship goes ahead with plans to attack all armed groups refusing to surrender, today's fighting will be the equivalent of a first small skirmish," said the Burma Campaign UK in a statement.

In the heaviest clashes, Karen rebels reportedly seized a police station, post office and other buildings Sunday in Myawaddy. More fighting broke out further south for one hour Monday at the Three Pagodas Pass, said local Thai official Chamras Jungnoi. There was no word on any casualties.

Refugees marched, shepherded by Thai security personnel, through the streets of the Thai town of Mae Sot, which is just across a river from Myawaddy. Those few carrying belongings toted them on top of their heads, while several lucky ones got rides on pickup trucks.

They were being sheltered near the Mae Sot airport at a location that was becoming overcrowded.

State media and the Election Commission reported Monday that 40 junta-backed candidates won their races, but a day after the polls closed, virtually no other official results — even on voter turnout — were available

The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party was certain to win an overwhelming number of seats. It fielded 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 spots.

The constitution sets aside 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for military appointees.

The NDF said provisional returns it had collected showed it winning 15 seats.

NDF chief Khin Maung Swe accused the USDP of using every possible method to steal the vote, and said it was "sure to win 90 per cent if they continue to cheat in such manner."

The NDF is led by breakaway members of the former National League for Democracy of detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, who has been locked up in her Yangon villa on and off since 1989. The party was disbanded this year after declining to register.

Suu Kyi's term of house arrest is supposed to expire Saturday, though the junta has kept silent over whether it will grant her freedom.

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Associated Press photographer Apichart Weerawong in Mae Sot, Thailand, and writers Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.