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Myanmar people cast their votes at a polling station in Loikaw, Kayah state, east of Yangon on November 7, 2010. Myanmar voted in its first election in 20 years as complaints of intimidation added to fears the poll was a sham to create a facade of democracy after decades of iron-fisted military rule. (AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)
Myanmar people cast their votes at a polling station in Loikaw, Kayah state, east of Yangon on November 7, 2010. Myanmar voted in its first election in 20 years as complaints of intimidation added to fears the poll was a sham to create a facade of democracy after decades of iron-fisted military rule. (AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar goes to the polls with little to vote for Add to ...

The last time Myanmar went to the polls, Win Hlaing was on the front line of a revolution. An idealistic 24-year-old at the time, he was among the youngest in a wave of National League for Democracy members who won seats in a 1990 parliament that was never allowed to sit.

The country better known as Burma has now voted in its first election since the military stepped in 20 years ago to overturn those results. Mr. Win Hlaing was in Bangkok, his place of exile, trying his best not to pay attention to what was going on back home. He felt further than ever from taking up the seat he won.

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Like most of those who took part in the popular uprising of the late 1980s, Mr. Win Hlaing was reduced to the role of observer Sunday as the junta ran a carefully choreographed vote expected to replace direct military rule with a civilian government loyal to the junta that has ruled the country for the past 48 years. The NLD's leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest, where she has been for most of the time since her election win.

"I'm not interested in today's election," said Mr. Win Hlaing, who himself spent a decade in prison after the 1990 vote. "This is not a political solution for the Burmese people. The people have no excitement at all."

That disinterest was largely mirrored on the streets of Myanmar's largest city, Rangoon, where a reporter saw only a trickle of people going to vote and no line-ups at polling stations.

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Early results tallied by the exile newspaper The Irrawaddy showed the junta's Union Solidarity and Development Party already leading, having won six early seats, according to the newspaper's sources. The opposition National Democratic Front had won one.

"There are a few independent or opposition candidates who will be elected, but they will be a tiny minority," predicted Soe Aung, a member of the Forum for Democracy in Burma, an exile group based in Thailand. "This parliament will be a rubber stamp parliament to carry out the decisions of the [military]"

Parties taking part in the election estimated nationwide turnout at 60 per cent or higher (of 29 million eligible voters), but a Myanmarese organization that informally monitored the vote estimated the real number at between 30 and 40 per cent. Britain's ambassador also said he saw no evidence of large numbers of people going to vote.

The turnout rate will perhaps be the most revealing figure to come out of the election. The NLD had been calling for a boycott, while the regime in recent days stepped up a campaign to persuade people to vote. It was unclear when the official results would be released.

The election isn't expected to fundamentally alter the way power works in a country that is one of the poorest and most corrupt. Myanmar is increasingly ruled at the whim of Senior General Than Shwe, who was not a candidate in the election but is expected to remain the final authority on almost everything as commander-in-chief of the army. He recently decreed the country should have a new flag and national anthem, reportedly after consulting astrologers.

Unlike in 1990, the junta has left little room for voters to surprise them. Under a new constitution, 25 per cent of the seats in the two-chamber parliament are reserved for the military. With the resources of the regime at its disposal, the USDP - led by members of the incumbent government and recently retired generals - was expected to have little trouble securing a majority that would allow it to choose the next president and government.

The USDP's main rival, the National Unity Party, is also backed by the military. Hamstrung by high registration fees and largely denied access to the media, the opposition NDF - which broke away from Ms. Suu Kyi's NLD in order to run in the election - is contesting less than a quarter of the available seats.

"Maybe parliament can become a dynamic place for people to debate politics and even to dispute the government. That's what those parties who entered the election are looking for. But there's no illusion that Than Shwe and the regime will be in control," said Zaw Oo, director of the Vahu Development Institute, a think tank in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

State television didn't mention the election until four hours after polls closed, when it broadcast lengthy footage of Gen. Than Shwe casting his ballot. The newsreader said Myanmarese had voted "freely and happily," noting the election had been witnessed by foreign diplomats, including some from North Korea, Vietnam and China, as well as the "Foreign Correspondents' Club of Rangoon."

Ambassadors from the United States and European Union rejected the regime's offer of a guided tour of selected polling stations, while foreign correspondents and election observers were denied visas to cover the campaign. Speaking on a visit to India, United States President Barack Obama called the vote "anything but free and fair."

Ron Hoffman, Canada's ambassador to Thailand with responsibility for Myanmar (which the Canadian government calls Burma), said there was initially some excitement inside the country about the election, particularly among young Myanmarese who hoped it would be the first step toward political change.

"Systematically, that hope was eliminated by the regime," he said in an interview. "It's another tragedy for Burma."

With a report from a special correspondent in Rangoon



It was 20 years ago when voters in Myanmar last chose a new government in a much different election

1990



2010

20.8 million

Eligible voters

29 million

492

Contested seats

1,171

93

Contesting parties

37

~500

Pro-junta candidates

+2,200

~1,800

Other candidates

~ 650

Won 392 out of 492 seats (80.8 per cent), led by Aung San Suu Kyi

National League for Democracy

Boycotted vote, forced to officially disband. Ms. Suu Kyi is under house arrest

Sources: Altsean Burma; Globe and Mail research

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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