Refugees return to Burma after poll
About 20,000 refugees are heading home to Burma after fleeing to Thailand as fighting followed a general election that is certain to keep the ruling military and its allies in power.
The exodus underlined Burma's vulnerability to unrest following the country's first election in 20 years on Sunday, which was billed by the ruling junta as a key stage in its self-proclaimed road to democracy.
Privately, officials of the junta's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, have boasted of winning up to 80% of the vote, even though just a handful of official results have been announced. Political opponents said the sweeping victory will be won through cheating - and were joined by Western nations in decrying the vote as manipulated and unfair.
Thai authorities said that Burma assured them the situation had stabilised in Myawaddy, a border town where ethnic Karen guerrillas attacked on Sunday. The refugees who fled to nearby Mae Sot, in Thailand's Tak province, were all expected to be sent home by Wednesday.
However, fighting continued at Three Pagoda Pass, another Burma border town 100 miles south of Myawaddy.
On Tuesday, in the first official mention of the incidents, Burma state television said the attackers were with the Karen National Union, an ethnic rebel group fighting against the government for decades. Burma has been ruled by the military near-continuously since 1962, and rebellions by its ethnic minorities predate its independence from Britain in 1948. Ethnic guerrilla armies loathe the prospect of further tightening of control by the army.
Anti-government parties claim the polls were blatantly rigged. The country's second biggest party, the National Unity Party - an outgrowth of the political machine of the late strongman General Ne Win now associated with big business interests - joined the chorus of critics, even though it is generally seen as closer to the junta than to the country's pro-democracy movement.
Although most election results had not yet been released, there was little doubt that as the only party running practically everywhere, the junta-backed USDP would emerge with an enormous share of the seats, despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule.
US President Barack Obama said it was unacceptable for Burma's government to "steal an election," and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the voting was not inclusive enough and lacked transparency. But there was support from Burma's main ally China, which said: "This is a critical step for Burma in implementing the seven step roadmap to transitioning to an elected government and thus is welcome and affirmed."
The election was the first in 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. Suu Kyi's term of house arrest is supposed to expire on Saturday, though the junta has kept silent over whether it will grant her freedom.