Burma's controversial first election in twenty years, already marred by claims of widespread abuse of the advance voting process by the military junta, began when the polls opened across the country at 6 a.m. on Sunday in a relatively calm atmosphere marked by heightened security in targeted locations.
“Everything is still quiet. It seems as if nothing particular is going on, even though seven anti-riot trucks loaded with police were stationed near my house in Sanchaung Township in Rangoon,” said Khing Maung Swe, the chairman of National Democratic Force (NDF) political party, at 6:30 a.m. in the morning.
“Additional security forces are waiting inside monasteries to quickly react to any attempt to promote a boycott of the polls,” he said. But local residents in other parts of Rangoon report no such security presence.
Minutes after the polls opened, an official of the junta-appointed Union Election Commission (EC) in Naypyidaw confirmed to The Irrawaddy that all the polling stations were simultaneously opened nationwide at 6 a.m. in the morning.
Opposition parties and activists have denounced the EC for ignoring the reportedly widespread cases of forced and unfair advance voting for the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is boycotting the polls and calls the process “undemocratic.”
Since around 7 a.m., EC officials in different townships across Rangoon were seen canvassing the city in cars, urging voters to go out and cast ballots. “Some polling stations in a number of townships were using loudspeakers to urge voters to come and vote,” said a reporter for The Irrawaddy in Rangoon.
But The Irrawaddy's local reporters in Rangoon, Mandalay, Moulemin Township in Mon State, Bogalay Township in Irrawaddy Division, Pegu Township and Pyimana in Mandalay Division said they had not seen any crowd of voters heading to the polling stations in the two hours since the polls opened.
By contrast, in Zabbu Thiri Township in Naypyidaw, where USDP chairman and junta prime minister Thein Sein is running for a parliamentary seat with his only rival being a member of the pro-regime National Unity Party, reporters saw a queue of voters at polling stations.
This did not come as a surprise, however, because in the remote capital all government staff have reportedly been ordered by the regime to appear at polling stations and vote in order to give a semblance of election-day atmosphere, The Irrawaddy reporters said.
The controversial election began with observers continuing to debate whether the opening of the polls would herald the beginning-of-the-end of Burma's more than five decades of entrenched military rule marked by the continued detention of over 2,100 political prisoners and other human rights violations, or whether the current military rule would continue much unchanged under the guise of civilian rule, with junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe still exercising ultimate power.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience at the University of Melbourne on Sunday that Burma's election “once again exposes the abuses of the military junta.”
Picture from The Guardian.
Follow Reuters' "live" updates here.
For more news on the elections, visit Burma Partnership.
Read also: Burmese wake up to first election in two decades by Voice of America.
We will update this page as and when we have further news of the elections.