YANGON - SHOPS were closed, Internet cafes shut and streets eerily quiet in Myanmar's main city of Yangon on Sunday as the military-ruled country voted for the first time in 20 years.

Hmwei Hmwei, aged 30, arrived early at one of the main city's polling booths with her national registration card and queued patiently to exercise her democratic right for the first time. 'I come to vote for change. I hope things will be transformed for the better,' said the student who, like all citizens aged under 38, had never voted in a general election before.

The scene was repeated across many - but not all - parts of the ethnically diverse country of 50 million people, from the mountainous Kachin state in the north, bordering China, to the southern coast on the Andaman Sea.

Back in Yangon, local Red Cross and fire brigade officials were deployed at polling booths and barbed wire was laid out at the top of some streets, but Western diplomats said there was little sign a major election was underway.

'It's come across as some kind of low level parish council vote. There's just no buzz at all,' said Britain's ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Heyn. 'The lack of excitement on the ground is very striking and reflects the campaign that preceded it.'

Police Colonel Khin Maung Aye was on duty for the morning but expressed confidence that the day would progress without hitches. 'The situation is peaceful,' he said. 'I will vote cheerfully and satisfyingly... as we are the people who have to choose the government that will be best for the country.'

Mood flat as Myanmar votes