YANGON - VOTERS in the secretive military-ruled nation of Myanmar cast their first ballots in 20 years on Sunday, as slim hopes for democratic reform faced an electoral system engineered to ensure that most power will remain in the hands of the junta and its political proxies.

While it remained unclear when results would be announced - officials would only say they would come 'in time' - there was little doubt that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party would emerge with an enormous share of the parliamentary seats, despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule.

Many voters said they simply wanted to cast their votes against the junta's politicians. 'I cannot stay home and do nothing,' said Yi Yi, a 45-year-old computer technician in Yangon, the country's largest city. 'I have to go out and vote against USDP. That's how I will defy them (the junta).'

Voting against them, though, may not matter very much. The junta's proxy party, which is led by a just-retired general and has the government's enormous financial resources at its disposal, is fielding 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, is contesting just 164 spots.

Election rules were clearly written to benefit the USDP, with hundreds of potential opposition candidates - including pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in the last election in 1990 but was barred from taking office - under house arrest or in prison. Many other potential candidates in the poverty-wracked nation were simply unable to raise the $500 registration fee.

Several parties say many voters were already strong-armed into casting ballots for the junta's proxy party in a system of advance voting. No matter the election results, the constitution sets aside 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for military appointees. Ms Suu Kyi has dismissed the election as rigged and urged her party, the National League for Democracy, to boycott the vote, leading to its dissolution.

Myanmar holds rare elections