Yangon, 6 November 2010
Armed police patrolled the streets and shops in the capital were closed for business Saturday as Myanmar prepared for its first election in two decades amid a growing outcry over voter intimidation.
Security was tight on the eve of Sunday’s poll as the junta looked to clamp down on any potential disruption to the process, which has been widely criticised as a charade to camouflage army rule.
Two parties aligned to the military are together fielding about two-thirds of the total candidates and the weakened opposition has slim chance of success with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi locked up.
The National Democratic Force (NDF) and Democratic Party (Myanmar) have led accusations that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was “cheating” and “threatening” voters.
The NDF filed an official letter of complaint to the Union Election Commission on the eve of the poll charging the party with illegally collecting advance ballots, following a similar move by the Democracy party.
It said that in one village in Shan State, east Myanmar, an official had instructed the entire population to vote for the USDP and reported similar incidents in other regions across the country.
The letter also accused authorities of accepting ballots from children as young as seven.
Ethnic minority groups added their voices to the complaints.
The Chin Human Rights Organisation reported that in a ward in Chin State, in western Myanmar, one polling station was at an army checkpoint.
“How can people feel free to vote for the party of their choice if soldiers are watching them?” said programme director Salai Za Uk Ling.
All Mon Region Democracy Party, in Mon State in the southeast, and Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP), in Rakhine State in the west, threatened to boycott the result over alleged USDP abuses, exile website Irrawaddy reported.
One USDP member, campaigning in a five-vehicle convoy in Yangon, told AFP he had not collected advance votes in his area as he did not want any “misunderstandings”.
The USDP, formed by ministers who retired from the military in April, has allegedly been helped by local authorities to force people, from teachers to factory workers, to pick the junta party.
“I voted yesterday as I will be on duty on election day. Of course I voted for the lion (USDP), I have no choice,” a government worker in the capital Naypyidaw said.
In Yangon, authorities conducted house-to-house visits at night to check on residents while armed police patrolled the streets as security was tightened.
“They are very concerned about election day,” a civil servant in Naypyidaw told AFP, adding that shops in the capital were ordered to close on Friday night and not reopen until after the vote.
The junta was also feared to be intentionally blocking access to information, with the Internet down across Yangon on Friday.
The military and its proxy party enjoy huge advantages in the polls: a quarter of seats in the new legislature are reserved for the army, while opposition parties have encountered major obstacles.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, who has been detained for much of the past 20 years, remains under house arrest and sidelined from the election while her now-disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD) is boycotting the process.
Suu Kyi won a landslide election victory in 1990 but the generals never allowed her to take power.
Many people in Myanmar, where almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty line, prioritise basic needs over politics, while a lack of choice has fuelled disillusionment in the election.
In many constituencies the poll is a two-horse race between the USDP and the National Unity Party (NUP), the successor to late dictator Ne Win’s party.
Few outsiders will bear witness when up to 29 million eligible voters cast their ballots.
Foreign observers and international media have been barred from entering the country for the election, while European diplomats have snubbed official polling station visits.