Myanmar refugees head home
Yangon - About 20 000 refugees from Myanmar headed home on Tuesday after fleeing to Thailand because of violence in the wake of a general election that is certain to keep Myanmar's military and its allies in power.
The incident 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.
Thai authorities said on Tuesday that Myanmar officials assured them the situation had stabilised in Myawaddy, a border town that came under attack by ethnic Karen guerrillas on Sunday. The refugees who fled to Mae Sot, in Thailand's Tak province, were all expected to be sent home by late Tuesday, said provincial governor Samard Loyfar.
However, fighting continued at Three Pagoda Pass, another Myanmar border town 160km south of Myawaddy, said Thai officials.
"The heavy shooting in Myanmar stopped a few hours ago but sporadic gunshots still can be heard," said Chamras Kungnoi, a district chief on the Thai side.
About 3 000 refugees were still in Thailand. "We want them to return at some point, but if the fighting continues, they might have to stay here another night," Chamras said.
A 9-year-old girl from Myanmar died of shrapnel wounds, Chamras said. Five people were wounded by stray gunfire in Mae Sot on Monday, and another five were hurt in Myawaddy.
Myanmar 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 chafe at the prospect of further tightening of control by the army.
Anti-government parties claim the polls were blatantly rigged. Khin Maung Swe, chief of the anti-government National Democratic Force, accused the junta's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, of using every possible method to steal the vote, and said it was "sure to win 90% if they continue to cheat in such manner".
Though most election results had not yet been released, there was little doubt the junta-backed USDP would emerge with an enormous share of the seats, despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule. 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 NDF, contested just 164 spots.
Criticism from Obama
A coalition of dozens of Myanmar media and human rights organisations that set up a poll-monitoring website said the vote was rigged.
"The reports that we have gathered demonstrate that these elections are deeply flawed, and are fundamentally illegitimate ... unfair and undemocratic," the groups said.
President Barack Obama said on 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. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the voting was not inclusive enough and lacked transparency.
The West and the UN have long been critical of Myanmar's military regime, especially for its poor human rights record.
But not everyone was so critical of the election.
"This is a critical step for Myanmar in implementing the seven step roadmap to transitioning to an elected government and thus is welcome and affirmed," Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said on Tuesday. Beijing is the junta's staunchest ally.
No word on Suu Kyi's release
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar belongs, welcomed the vote as a "significant step forward", Vietnamese foreign minister Ham Gina Khi said in a statement as the group's chair.
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.
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.
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," the group Burma Campaign UK said on Monday in a statement.
The UN and human rights groups have detailed killings, rape, torture, forced labour and burning of villages in Myanmar as the regime campaigns to deny the rebels support from the civilian population. Thailand already shelters a quarter-million ethnic minority refugees from brutal campaigns by the Myanmar army.