BANGKOK | Burma’s military junta conducted the country’s first election in 20 years on Sunday in a bid to seal, if not legitimize, its control over the biggest country in mainland Southeast Asia, while the muzzled opposition expected a continuation of human rights violations, U.S.-led economic sanctions and China’s growing influence.
The military rulers’ candidates were given 25 percent of parliament’s seats in advance, ensuring their power because any constitutional change requires a parliamentary majority of more than 75 percent.
If they win 26 percent of the elected seats in each of the bicameral parliament’s assemblies, as expected, they would enjoy simple majorities of 51 percent.
President Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague separately described the election as undemocratic, and predicted it would entrench the military’s grip on the impoverished nation.
The election “will be anything but free and fair,” Mr. Obama said Sunday in Mumbai while speaking to students. “For too long, the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny.”
“It will mean the return to power of a brutal regime that has pillaged the nation’s resources and overseen widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, rape and torture,” said Mr. Hague.
Burma’s junta barred international observers from monitoring and foreign press from covering the election.
Sources in Burma told The Washington Times, on the condition of anonymity owing to fear of reprisal, that voter turnout had been low despite the military’s attempt to intimidate voters to go to the polls.
In a blog post for the Guardian newspaper of London, British Ambassador to Burma Andrew Heyn said people had been ordered to vote for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
“I have firsthand accounts of people who have been warned by local officials that if they don’t vote for the USDP there will be trouble for them and their families,” Mr. Heyn wrote.
This was Burma’s first election since 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory, but was then disqualified by the military from taking power.
Mrs. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and her party boycotted Sunday’s election because she was prevented from standing as a candidate according to a constitution created in 2008 by the army, which also blocked freedom of speech, normal political campaigning and other democratic freedoms.
Mrs. Suu Kyi, meanwhile, is under house arrest because she illegally allowed a seemingly delusional American from Missouri, John Yettaw, to spend two nights at her house in 2009 after he evaded authorities by swimming to her lakeside two-story villa in Burma’s former capital, Rangoon.
The next critical test for the Burmese junta is whether it will release Mrs. Suu Kyi on Nov. 13 as military leaders have hinted they would.
Mrs. Suu Kyi is widely expected to denounce the election as flawed if she is released.
If the military responds by arresting her again, it would essentially shut down the engagement prong of the Obama administration’s dual-track Burma policy.
Meanwhile, pressure is building on the Obama administration to appoint a special representative and policy coordinator for Burma as required by the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008.
• Ashish Sen in Washington contributed to this report.