Clashes erupt in eastern Myanmar

Ref: At least three people have been killed in clashes between ethnic Karen fighters and government soldiers in eastern Myanmar, a day after the country held its first elections in 20 years.

Eleven more people were injured when gun and mortar fire hit the town of Myawaddy in Karen State on Monday, government officials told AFP news agency.

Al Jazeera’s Marga Ortigas, reporting from the Thai border town of Mae Sot said that a stray rocket propelled grenade crossed into Thailand, injuring five people.

“The clashes appear to be between a faction linked to the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and government-backed troops,” she said.

“This faction has said it did not support the ceasefire the DKBA signed with the Myanmar government, and have reiterated that they want their own autonomy.”

Our correspondent in Thailand also said that thousands of refugees from Myanmar have crossed the border, and some say they fear government troops will shoot them for failing to vote on Sunday.

Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), said fighting broke out between up to 300 DKBA soldiers and government forces.

“We don’t know definitely but I think last night the army sent over more troops, they negotiated and the DKBA retreated but this morning they were blocked by army trucks and then it started,” she said.

Tensions high

Zipporah Sein also said the fighting was currently contained in the town but added that if it spilled into surrounding areas, up to 500 DKBA troops and 900 KNU soldiers could join the battle.The two movements are separate but both operate along Myanmar’s strife-torn border with Thailand.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, has said that ethnic minority areas in eastern Myanmar could continue for months.

He also said that the country was ready to provide humanitarian assistance as refugee numbers continue to rise.

“It is possible that it will carry on during the next three months, particularly during the transition from the current government to an elected government,” he told reporters in the capital Bangkok.

The clashes follow a demonstration by the fighters over Sunday’s election as well as attempts to force ethnic minority troops to join a border guard force – which would put them under state control.

A simmering civil war has wracked parts of Myanmar since independence in 1948 and observers say the state’s determination to crush ethnic anti-government fighters appears to have increased as elections loomed.

Myanmar’s military government meanwhile looks set to win the country’s elections, as the ruling generals voted themselves back into power, amid opposition claims of intimidation and poll irregularities.

With no specific time given for the release of results, the election held on Sunday was widely criticised, with Western powers labelling the vote as a “missed opportunity”.

However, some saw the poll as a small step towards democracy after almost five decades of military rule, with opposition parties confident of success in areas they did contest.

But with 25 per cent of the seats in parliament reserved for military appointees regardless of the outcome, the two main pro-military parties needed to win just 26 per cent of the remaining seats to secure a majority.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Myanmar added that the total voter turnout will never be known, and that despite opposition groups running in the polls, electoral advantages have been skewed towards the USDP.

Generals voting

In many constituencies, the poll was a two-way battle between the USDP and the National Unity Party (NUP), which is the successor to former leader Ne Win’s party and also closely aligned with the military.

On Monday, state media featured photos of ruling general Than Shwe and other senior leaders voting, as well as various pictures and articles about diplomats and reporters observing the polls.

State media also reported that local residents “freely cast votes” and it announced the “winners” in 57 constituencies, 55 of which were contested by just one candidate, more than two thirds of those with the USDP.

However, two opposition parties accused the USDP of illegally collecting advance ballots.

The National Democratic Force (NDF), created by former members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said some people had complained that they were told by the USDP there was no need to vote as their ballots had already been collected.

But Khin Maung Swe, an NDF leader said his party was optimistic about its prospects in those areas where it stood, with queues forming at some polling stations.

“I think people wanted to vote as they haven’t voted for a long time,” he said.More than 29 million people were eligible to vote but it remains uncertain as to how many actually cast ballots.

International condemnation of the polls continues to grow, as US president Barack Obama said the vote would be “anything but free and fair”, while Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, said Washington would maintain “rigorous sanctions” against the government.

The electoral process was “severely flawed, precluded an inclusive, level playing field, and repressed fundamental freedoms,” Clinton said.

After the election, attention is now turning to whether the government will release Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday, when her current term of house arrest ends.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner led the NLD to power in 1990 but the result was never recognised by the ruling generals.

She has been detained for most of the last 20 years and supported a boycott of Sunday’s election.

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