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Threats fail to boost low poll turnout in Burma

Burma's first election in 20 years was marked by low turn-out and reluctant voters yesterday as many people appeared to have decided there was little point participating in a poll considered skewed.

In cities such as Rangoon, the former capital, turn-out may have been as little as 30%, sources said, despite threats from authorities that people could be jailed if they failed to vote. Armed police and troops were patrolling the streets.

As of last night, there was no word on the official turn-out or the result of the poll, simply that it would come “in time”. In reality there was little to wait for; most observers have believed all along the polls would deliver a victory for two pro-establishment parties with the backing of the military.

“So many people did not go to the polling booths. The number of voters was very low,” Nyan Win, a lawyer for detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said. “People are very angry with the junta. They cannot accept the junta.”

Andrew Heyn, the British ambassador to Burma, said: “Given that these are the first elections in 20 years, it feels flat, very low key, and little different from a normal Sunday in Rangoon.

“That's obviously a reflection of all the restrictions of the campaign and a feeling that the result is pre-determined.”

Ahead of polls the authorities, led by General Than Shwe, insisted were a stepping stone to full democracy, a quarter of parliamentary seats were reserved for the military.

Many opposition groups, among them Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), decided not to participate.

As a result, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), an organisation stuffed with ex-military candidates and two dozen incumbent ministers, and the National Unity Party, the latter backed by supporters of Burma's previous military dictator, were the only parties with the resources to put up candidates in nearly all of the 1,159 seats. This left many of the 29 million eligible voters with the choice between military rulers past and present. In border areas, the junta cancelled voting, disenfranchising 1.5 million voters.

Both US president Barack Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, dismissed the poll as neither free nor fair.

The last election in Burma was held in 1990. The NLD won by a landslide, only to see the result annulled by the authorities. The aftermath saw a wave of arrests of political opponents. Ms Suu Kyi has spent around 15 of the last 21 years either in jail or detained at her lakeside home in Rangoon. Her latest term of arrest is due to end on November 13.

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