|Members of the National Democratic Force party (NDF) put up a poster of Myanmar's detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the gate to the party's headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar, Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. Political gatherings are only allowed with a week's notice and an official review of the campaign speech. Hundreds of potential opposition candidates, including pro-democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi, are under house arrest or in prison. Many of the rules were clearly written to benefit the proxy party for the ruling junta. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)|
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's pro-junta party has told voters they could lose their jobs if they fail to vote for military-backed candidates in Sunday's elections, opposition party officials said, casting more doubt on the legitimacy of the nation's first ballot in 20 years.
Officials with the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party have also punished voters who cast early ballots for other parties, the opposition leaders said Saturday — adding to already deep worries about the regime's promised "roadmap to democracy."
In Yangon, the country's largest city, there was little fanfare on the eve of the balloting, with many voters expressing apathy about elections they said had already been orchestrated by the ruling generals.
"This will just be the same old wine with a new label," said Soe Myint, a 65-year-old retired Yangon schoolteacher, adding that she would not cast a ballot.
Thu Wai, chairman of the Democratic Party (Myanmar), said his party had filed a string of complaints against the USDP for campaign violations. "We will press the election commissions to take actions against these improper practices," he said as he made a last-minute campaign tour through Yangon.
The military, which has ruled Myanmar with an iron hand since 1962, has billed the elections as a key step in its "roadmap to democracy."
Critics have widely panned the balloting, the country's first in two decades, as a sham designed to cement military rule. But some in Myanmar — also known as Burma — are holding out hope that they could mark the beginning of a slow democratic transition.
The main opposition party, detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, has refused to take part in the polls, saying the process is unfair and undemocratic. It has been disbanded by the government as a result.
|In this photo taken Friday, June. 18, 2010, birthday candles are lit in front of an image of Myanmar's detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a small party of her 65th birthday at a home of a member of her party National League for Democracy Party in Yangon, Myanmar. With just weeks to go before Suu Kyi's scheduled release, the High Court has agreed to hear arguments from her lawyers on whether to hear their appeal against her latest stint of house arrest, her lawyer said Friday, Oct. 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)|
The festive mood ahead of the last elections in 1990 — which were overwhelmingly won by Suu Kyi's party, which was barred from taking power — was nowhere to be seen Saturday.
New regulations have restricted most campaigning, and only the USDP has the money and manpower to have much visibility beyond scattered campaign posters and tea shop voter meetings. On Saturday, groups of people in USDP T-shirts marched through Yangon, handing out campaign literature as music blared from loudspeakers.
"I thought of not voting because I don't think the elections will be free or fair," said Htoo Htoo, a 25-year-old grocery store employee. "But I have decided to vote tomorrow for the independent candidate from my constituency because I am afraid my ballot might be filled in by some unscrupulous person" from the junta party.
Khin Maung Swe, leader of the National Democratic Force party, said Friday that many voters were being forced to cast their ballots ahead of time. Regulations allow advance voting for people, like fisherman, who are not able to vote on election day. But the early balloting also lets authorities gauge voter sentiment and gives them more time to manipulate the tally, he said.
In one central Myanmar village, a local official asked at least one member of each household to cast an advance vote. A man who voted for the National Democratic Force was ordered to bring 10 cartloads of sand and repair a local road as punishment, he said.
"The USDP feels threatened by the popularity of the democratic parties," Khin Maung Swe said.
The NDF, which split away from Suu Kyi's party, is the nation's third largest with 164 candidates, just a fraction of the 1,112 candidates running with the junta-backed party.
The Democratic Party (Myanmar), which is fielding 47 candidates, as well as the National Unity Party, second in size with 995 candidates, have made complaints similar to those of the NDF.
Thirty-seven parties, most tiny, are contesting for 494 seats in the two-chamber Union Parliament and 665 spread among 14 regional parliaments.
|Myanmar activists hold banners during a protest against their home country's election in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010. Voters in Myanmar's first election in 20 years cast their ballots Sunday amid both a barrage of criticism that the balloting was rigged in favor of the ruling military and hope that some change toward democratic reform might nonetheless follow.(AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)|
Thu Wai said local officials threatened villagers after one of his candidates campaigned in central Myanmar.
"Her sister, who is a schoolteacher, was also threatened with the loss of her job because she provided meals to her sister during her campaigning," he said.
The Shan Nationalities Democratic Party — the fourth largest with 156 candidates — complained that villagers in Shan state, its homeland, were asked to cast advance votes and harassed if they did not vote for the USDP.
Khin Maung Swe accused the official election commissions at both the local and national levels of failing to respond to the complaints. Their inaction, he charged, "make the elections less credible."
USDP leaders and government officials could not be reached to respond to the complaints.
Prime Minister Thein Sein, who is also leader of the USDP, said last month the government was "determined to do (its) utmost for the successful conclusion of the free and fair general election based on past experiences and lessons learned in the best interest of the country and the people."
Some voters agreed that the elections were a welcome development and a first step toward political change.