Image: Thai soldiers run for cover near the Thai-Myanmar border in Mae Sot
KC Ortiz  /  AFP - Getty Images
Thai soldiers run for cover near the Thai-Myanmar border in Mae Sot, Thailand, on Monday as clashes took place on the other side of the border.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/8/2010 1:36:19 PM ET 2010-11-08T18:36:19

Fighting between ethnic rebels and Myanmar government troops has sent at least 15,000 refugees fleeing into Thailand just after a widely criticized election expected to usher in a parliament sympathetic to the military regime.

Fighting raged Monday at key border points, wounding at least 10 people on both sides of the frontier as stray shots fell into Thailand.

The clashes underlined Myanmar's vulnerability to unrest even as it passes through a key stage of the ruling junta's self-proclaimed "road map to democracy." The country has been under virtually continuous military rule since 1962, and has faced rebellions by its ethnic minorities since even before obtaining independence from Britain in 1948.

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In the heaviest clashes, Karen rebels reportedly seized a police station and post office Sunday in the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy. Sporadic gun and mortar fire continued into Monday afternoon. More fighting broke out further south for one hour Monday at the Three Pagodas Pass, said local Thai official Chamras Jungnoi, but there was no word on any casualties.

However, Thai officials said late Monday that fighting had died down, and government troops had regained control of Myawaddy. Tens of thousands of ethnic Karen villagers who have fled decades of fighting in the border regions already shelter in refugees camps on the Thai side of the frontier, but the newcomers were expected to return home soon.

It was the biggest one-day tide of refugees to flee into Thailand in recent years. Refugees continued to arrive into the evening, and some independent estimates put their number closer to 20,000.

Groups representing ethnic minorities who make up some 40 percent of the population had warned in recent days that civil war could erupt if the military tries to impose its highly centralized constitution and deprive them of rights.

Obama condemns election
The fighting threatened to overshadow electoral developments, which include mounting chagrin on the part of anti-government parties over what they charge was blatant cheating on behalf of the military's chosen candidates.

Speaking in New Delhi on Monday during his tour of Asia, U.S. President Barack Obama said it was unacceptable for Myanmar's government to "steal an election" and hold its people's aspirations hostage to the regime's greed and paranoia.

Obama says leaders in countries like the U.S. and India have a responsibility to condemn such gross violations of human rights. He was speaking before India's parliament.

Col. Wannatip Wongwai, commander of Thailand's Third Army Region responsible for security in the area, said Myanmar government troops appeared to have retaken control of Myawaddy, and the Karen rebels held just a few positions on the town's outskirts.

"As soon as the situation is under control, we will start sending the refugees back to Myawaddy," he told The Associated Press.

Myanmar's secretive government has billed Sunday's poll as a step toward democracy, but most observers have rejected it as a sham engineered to solidify military control.

State TV said voters "freely and happily" cast ballots, but witness accounts suggested low turn-out and irregularities.

"At least 15,000 refugees have crossed from eastern Myanmar into northern Thailand since this morning," said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the U.N.'s refugee agency, which was providing tents and other materials to shelter the refugees. Non-governmental groups also were offering aid.

Refugees marched in an orderly fashion, shepherded by Thai security personnel, through the streets of the Thai town of Mae Sot, which is just across a river from Myawaddy. Those few carrying belongings toted them on top of their heads, while several lucky ones got rides on pickup trucks.

Myanmar's elections - a big win for China?

'Military in civilian clothes'
Khin Ohmar, a spokeswoman for Burma Partnership, an umbrella group of Myanmar pro-democracy activists based in Thailand, said a faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, had seized the Myawaddy police station and post office Sunday.

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The guerrilla group sides with Myanmar's military regime, but a faction has split off and along with other Karen rebels is fighting the central government.

Most observers have rejected Sunday's poll as engineered to solidify military control, though some say having a parliament could provide an opening for moves toward democracy.

"It seems likely that the very small public political space will be widened and this is probably the best outcome we can hope for from the election," said Monique Skidmore of Australian National University.

"There's no doubt the new government will be the military in civilian clothing but the parliament also offers some hope of a gradual transition to a system where there is more space for political debate," said Christopher Roberts, an Asian studies and international relations expert at the University of Canberra.

No one expects an imminent end to Western sanctions. But the poll may reduce Myanmar's isolation at a time when neighboring China has dramatically increased investment in natural gas and other resources in the former British colony.

For the first five months of this year, China has invested about $8 billion in Myanmar, which it sees as strategic ally and important trading partner, especially for its energy-hungry western provinces.

The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party was certain to win an enormous share of the seats, despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule. It fielded 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments. The largest anti-government party, the National Democratic Force, contested just 164 spots.

And the constitution sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees.

Few official results
As early results trickled in Monday, state media and the Election Commission reported that 40 junta-backed candidates had already won their races, including six seats won by recently retired military generals and ministers including Foreign Minister Nyan Win in constituencies that were uncontested.

But a day after the polls closed, virtually no other official results — even on voter turnout — were available, and there was no timetable for releasing them.

The NDF said provisional returns it had collected showed it winning 15 seats.

NDF chief Khin Maung Swe accused the 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."

He described a case in the central city of Mandalay, where one popular NDF candidate ran against Health Minister Kyaw Myint, the USDP candidate. An initial count at polling booths Sunday evening showed the NDF candidate in front, but later that night, a bag of 3,376 ballots from advance voting arrived, which included 2,500 in favor of the USDP, enough to make it the winner.

Khin Maung Swe said there were many cases where lagging USDP candidates received a boost from the arrival of such ballots. Exile Myanmar media had reported that people casting advance ballots were often pressured to vote for the pro-government party.

The NDF is led by breakaway members of the former National League for Democracy of detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in the last elections in 1990 but was barred from taking office. The NLD was disbanded by the government after declining to run this year because it considered the election process unfair and undemocratic.

Democracy advocates are looking toward the coming few days, when Suu Kyi's term of house arrest is supposed to expire. Her lawyer Nyan Win said Monday that he was certain she would be released Saturday.

"We are making plans for a welcoming ceremony," he said.

Suu Kyi has been locked up in her Yangon villa on and off ever since 1989. Myanmar holds a total of some 2,200 political prisoners.

One of Suu Kyi's two sons, 33-year-old Kim Aris, applied for a visa Monday at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok in hopes of seeing his mother for the first time in 10 years. Aris, who lives in Britain, has repeatedly been denied visas.

Asked if he was optimistic, Aris told reporters he had "not too much hope. But there's always a little bit of hope. We'll see." He called the elections "a load of rubbish."

A Japanese photographer, Toru Yamaji, 49, was detained Sunday in Myawaddy on suspicion of illegal entry after slipping across the Thai border to try to cover the election, Japan's embassy said. Yamaji worked for APF, a Tokyo-based news organization. Myanmar had barred foreign reporters from covering the polls.

The military has ruled Myanmar since 1962, when it was known as Burma. Decades of human rights abuses and mistreatment of its ethnic minorities have turned the Southeast Asian nation into a diplomatic outcast. The junta has squandered Myanmar's vast natural resources through economic mismanagement and found itself allied with international pariahs like North Korea.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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