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Burma Refugees Return Home After 'Sham' Election

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YANGON, Myanmar — A senior member of Myanmar's military-backed party says it has so far captured 75 percent of parliamentary seats in the country's elections, which have widely been decried as manipulated and unfair.

The results point to an overwhelming victory. But there been little doubt about the outcome because the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party fielded candidates in nearly every district, whereas the largest opposition party was able to contest only 164 of the 1,159 parliamentary seats in Sunday's elections.

The party official says the USDP has won 878 seats. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.

No official results have been announced from Sunday's election. The party official says ballot tallies are coming in slowly.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – About 20,000 refugees from Myanmar headed home Tuesday after fleeing to Thailand as fighting followed a general election that is certain to keep Myanmar's military and its allies in power.

The incident underlined Myanmar's vulnerability to unrest following the country's first election in two decades on Sunday, which was billed by the ruling junta as a key stage in its self-proclaimed road to democracy.

Privately, officials of the junta's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, have boasted of winning 75 percent to 80 percent of the vote, even though just a handful of official results have been announced. Political opponents say the sweeping victory will be won through cheating, and are joined by Western nations in decrying the vote as manipulated and unfair.

Thai authorities said Tuesday that Myanmar officials assured them the situation had stabilized in Myawaddy, a border town where ethnic Karen guerrillas attacked Sunday. The refugees who fled to nearby Mae Sot, in Thailand's Tak province, were all expected to be sent home by late Tuesday, said provincial governor Samard Loyfar.

However, fighting continued at Three Pagoda Pass, another Myanmar border town 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Myawaddy, said Thai officials.

Nataphon Wichienprerd, governor of Thailand's Kanchanaburi province, adjacent to the town, said fighting continued late Tuesday between 40 and 50 guerrillas of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and 180 Myanmar government troops.

He said casualties included an 9-year-old Myanmar girl shot by government soldiers who died in a Thai hospital, and a 13-year-old Myanmar girl shot by Karen guerrillas who died on the spot.

Nataphon said about 3,500 refugees would shelter on Thai territory Tuesday night, with assistance provided by Thai and international organizations including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the first official mention of the incidents, Myanmar state television Tuesday night said the attackers were with the Karen National Union, an ethnic rebel group fighting against the government for decades.

The report said three people were killed and 20 injured in Myawaddy. Five others – including three soldiers and a policeman – were killed in Three Pagoda Pass. Five people inside Thailand were also wounded Monday by stray gunfire, it said.

Myanmar has been ruled by the military near-continuously since 1962, and rebellions by its ethnic minorities predate its independence from Britain in 1948. Ethnic guerrilla armies chafe at the prospect of further tightening of control by the army.

Anti-government parties claim the polls were blatantly rigged. Khin Maung Swe, chief of the anti-government National Democratic Force, accused the junta's proxy USDP of using every possible method to steal the vote, and said it was "sure to win 90 percent if they continue to cheat in such manner."

The country's second biggest party, the National Unity Party – an outgrowth of the political machine of the late strongman Gen. Ne Win now associated with big business interests – joined the chorus of critics, even though it is generally seen as closer to the junta than to the country's pro-democracy movement.

"The election process is absolutely unfair," said 82-year-old retired Brigadier Aye San, a senior party official who claimed there had been many cases of election fraud and malpractice.

The NUP had run 995 candidates to the USDP's 1,112, giving it hope it could pick up supporters in constituencies where it was the only alternative to the junta-backed party.

Though most election results had not yet been released, there was little doubt that as the only party running practically everywhere, the junta-backed USDP would emerge with an enormous share of the seats, despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule. At stake are 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments. The largest anti-government party, the NDF, contested just 164 spots.

President Barack Obama said Monday it was unacceptable for Myanmar's government to "steal an election," and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the voting was not inclusive enough and lacked transparency.

The West and the U.N. have long been critical of Myanmar's military regime, especially for its poor human rights record.

But not everyone was so critical of the election.

"This is a critical step for Myanmar in implementing the seven step roadmap to transitioning to an elected government and thus is welcome and affirmed," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday. Beijing is the junta's staunchest ally.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar belongs, welcomed the vote as a "significant step forward," Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem said in a statement as the group's chair.

Sunday's election was the first in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since a 1990 vote won by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, which was barred from taking power and boycotted the new polls.

Suu Kyi's term of house arrest is supposed to expire Saturday, though the junta has kept silent over whether it will grant her freedom.

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

"If the dictatorship goes ahead with plans to attack all armed groups refusing to surrender, today's fighting will be the equivalent of a first small skirmish," the group Burma Campaign UK said Monday in a statement.

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 Myanmar army.

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Online:

http://www.burmaelectiontracker.org

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

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