The people of military-ruled Myanmar voted today in the country's first national elections for 20 years.
The ruling junta said the polls marked a transition to democratic civilian rule, but critics say they are a “sham” intended to create a facade of democracy after decades of iron-fisted military rule.
Speaking at a meeting with students in the Indian city of Mumbai, U.S. President Barack Obama said the elections would be “anything but free and fair."
"We must remember that in some places the future of democracy is still very much in question. Just to give you an example, there are elections that are being held right now in Burma that will be anything but free and fair based on every report that we are seeing," Obama said. "And for too long, the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny.”
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2009
In a statement issued later in the day, Obama called for Myanmar’s authorities to free all political prisoners “immediately and unconditionally" and to end to "systematic violations of human rights."
He said the United States would continue to implement a strategy of “pressure and engagement” in accordance with conditions on the ground in Myanmar and the actions of its authorities.
In Tokyo, hundreds of people, including refugees from Myanmar, protested against the election.
One of the protesters, Phone Myint Tun, a member of a Burmese student group in Japan, told Reuters, "We want the military regime to stop dictating the country and start dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Myanmar to find a democratic way to lead the country."
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, which boycotted the vote.Strong-Armed
The opposition said the vote was manipulated, with several parties complaining that voters have been strong-armed into voting for the pro-junta party.
Foreign journalists and international poll monitors have been banned from the elections.
Reports say the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, were unusually quiet. Riot police were deployed at some road junctions, but no soldiers were seen near the balloting sites.
At stake were some 1,160 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments.
Whatever the outcome, the constitution sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats and regional legislatures for military appointees. And candidates supporting the military are expected to win the most seats in today’s vote.
The two pro-military parties – the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the National Unity Party -- are fielding by far the largest number of candidates, leaving the splintered opposition with little chance of success.
The largest opposition party contesting the race -- the National Democratic Force -- is running in less than 170 spots.
Other parties have struggled to fund campaigns and complained of harassment.
Hundreds of potential opposition candidates like Suu Kyi are under house arrest or in prison.
Suu Kyi, who has been detained or under house arrest for most of the past 20 years, led her party to victory in 1990, a vote that was never recognized by the military.compiled from agency reports