- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 10, 2010

RANGOON, Burma (AP) — Burma’s pro-military party was headed toward a sweeping election victory, according to the first official results released Wednesday. Critics, however, said the vote was rigged and poll fraud was rampant.

Top members of the ruling junta, including Prime Minister Thein Sein, were among those who won seats in parliament, according results broadcast Wednesday night on state television. Thein Sein heads the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which served as a proxy for the ruling junta.

The announcement came as a close political ally of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner will help investigate allegations of election fraud — if she is released from house arrest, which is due to expire Saturday.

Mrs. Suu Kyi’s intention to re-enter the political fray, especially in a manner that would embarrass the junta, poses the sort of challenge the military has met in the past by locking her up again. She has been detained for 15 of the past 21 years.

Independent observers and Western leaders including President Obama have said Sunday’s election — the first in two decades — was neither free nor fair.

The polling also sparked violence and fears of civil war among Burma’s ethnic minorities, who make up about 40 percent of the population. Some have fought the central government since Burma, officially known as Myanmar, gained independence from Britain in 1948.

The state television report did not give the total number of seats won by each party, but its partial list of winners by constituency made it apparent the pro-military party had won a decisive majority. Top USDP officials previously said the party had won 75-80 percent of the seats at stake.

According to official results released, USDP captured 48 of 60 lower house seats, nine of 13 upper house seats, and 83 of 109 seats in regional legislatures.

A spokesman for Mrs. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, Nyan Win, said it has established a committee to investigate charges of fraud in Sunday’s polls. The NLD was officially disbanded as a political party but remains active.

An official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said although no official instructions have been made about Mrs. Suu Kyi’s possible release, “necessary security preparations are being made on the ground.”

Mrs. Suu Kyi was convicted last year of violating the terms of her previous detention by briefly sheltering an American man who swam uninvited to her lakeside home.

Nyan Win expressed confidence she would be freed.

“She has to be freed as there is no law under which her detention can be extended,” said Nyan Win. But he added Mrs. Suu Kyi would not accept her release if there were any conditions attached to her freedom. In the past, the military has refused to let her travel out of Yangon, fearing her popularity could encourage dissent.

The NLD’s dilapidated headquarters in Rangoon was bustling Wednesday with party members tidying up Mrs. Suu Kyi’s old office.

The election was a key stage of the ruling junta’s “road map to democracy” — a process it has controlled every step of the way to ensure it would retain a commanding role in government, even with the ostensible restoration of civilian rule.

Under the 2008 constitution, one-quarter of the total seats in the upper and lower houses are reserved for the military.

Nyan Win said Mrs. Suu Kyi “will actively get involved in the [fraud investigating] committee and give advice when she is released.”

“We will compile a list of election fraud reports and expose the election irregularities,” said Nyan Win. “This is the ugliest election I have ever encountered. There is enormous amount of unfair activity all over the country.”

There was never much doubt about the outcome because the USDP fielded candidates in nearly every district, while the largest anti-government party was able to contest only 164 of the 1,159 parliamentary seats at stake. Campaign rules also limited challengers’ chances.

But those parties that challenged the USDP still expressed shock at what they alleged was blatant and widespread vote-rigging.

The country’s second biggest party, the National Unity Party — an outgrowth of the political machine of late strongman Gen. Ne Win — has joined the chorus of critics.

“The election process is absolutely unfair,” said 82-year-old retired Brig. Aye San, a senior NUP official who claimed many cases of fraud.

Clashes starting Sunday between ethnic rebels and government troops have killed at least three people — according to state media — and prompted an exodus of about 20,000 refugees across the border into Thailand. Many of them headed home Tuesday after the fighting subsided at the Thai-Myanmar border town of Myawaddy.

But about 1,000 refugees still remained on Thai soil opposite the Three Pagoda Pass, another site of clashes in recent days.

Several ethnic groups that field potent guerrilla armies refused to take part in the elections. Human rights groups have warned of possible civil war as ethnic groups are pressured by the government to accept a new constitution that offers them little autonomy.

The U.N. and human rights groups have detailed killings, rape, torture, forced labor 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 Burmese army.

Associated Press photographer Apichart Weerawong in Mae Sot, Thailand, and writer Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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