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Fighting between ethnic rebels and Myanmar government troops has sent at least 10,000 refugees fleeing into Thailand after a widely criticized election expected to usher in a parliament sympathetic to the military regime.
Fighting raged Monday at key points on the frontier with Thailand, leaving at least 10 people wounded on both sides of the frontier.
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.
Groups from Myanmar’s 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.
“There have been at least 10,000 refugees who have fled to Thailand,” said Col. Wannatip Wongwai, commander of Thailand’s Third Army Region responsible for security in the area. He said Myanmar government troops appeared to have retaken control of Myawaddy, and the rebels of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army held just a few positions on the outskirts of the town.
“As soon as the situation is under control, we will start sending the refugees back to Myawaddy,” he told The Associated Press.
Samard Loyfar, governor of Thailand’s Tak province, opposite Myawaddy, said gunshots were last heard from the Myanmar side at around 4-5 p.m. He said the U.N. was helping to care for 10,000 refugees being sheltered at a makeshift camp.
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. President Barack Obama called the vote “neither free nor fair.”
Addressing parliament during a visit to India — another neighbor of Myanmar — Obama said Monday 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.
Still, some say having a parliament could provide an opening for moves toward democracy.
There was little doubt the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party would emerge with 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.
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.
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, had urged a boycott of the vote. Hundreds of potential opposition candidates were either in prison or, like Suu Kyi, under house arrest.