Junta holds referendum

Despite calls for aid, vote on Myanmar constitution is held

May 11, 2008|By Los Angeles Times

YANGON, Myanmar -- In this cyclone-ravaged country where most people have more important things on their minds, such as the daily struggle for fresh water, food and shelter, Myanmar's ruling generals sent their people to the polls yesterday to vote on a constitution that opponents call a cynical attempt to maintain the junta's grip on power.

The regime insists that the vote to approve the new constitution, held in parts of the country that weren't affected by last weekend's devastating storm, is part of its road map to "discipline-flourishing genuine multiparty democracy."

But critics charge that the constitution, drafted by a 54-member commission hand-picked by the junta, is a stacked deck: mandating a role for the military in the government and banning detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for office because she was once married to a foreigner.

Though international aid has started to trickle in - with two more planes organized by the U.N. World Food Program landing at Yangon's airport yesterday - almost all foreign relief workers have been barred entry into the isolated nation.

The junta says it wants to hand out all donated supplies on its own.

Amid images of voters casting ballots, state-run television broadcast video of junta leader Gen. Than Shwe and other generals handing out boxes of relief aid to cyclone survivors. In case anyone missed the point, the boxes were plastered with the generals' names.

But with roads blocked and bridges submerged, reaching isolated areas in the hard-hit delta has been made all but impossible. The military has only a few dozen helicopters, most small and old. It also has about 15 transport planes, few of which are able to carry massive amounts of supplies.

Long lines formed in front of government centers, where minuscule rations of rice and oil were being distributed. Elsewhere, people clustered on roadsides hoping for handouts. The words "Help us!" were written in chalk on the side of one home.

The military regime, which has been in power since 1962, has refused to grant visas to most foreign aid workers eager to get into the disaster zone, assess survivors' health and housing needs and coordinate the delivery of medicine, food, shelter and building materials.

The generals went ahead with the referendum despite a warning Friday from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon that Myanmar's rulers should "concentrate their very limited resources, time and energy on saving lives and reconstructing their country. Then I think they can do the referendum at a later date," he added.

The junta postponed the referendum in Yangon, the country's largest city, and the rest of cyclone-hit southern Myanmar. It plans to call people in those areas to vote May 24.

The people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, have not voted in nearly two decades. The last elections were in 1990, when Suu Kyi stunned the regime by winning in a landslide; the generals annulled the results and jailed many of the victors.

Government workers say they were told that voting "no" in the referendum would cost them their jobs.

But the digital revolution has given opponents a relatively safe way of urging a "no" vote. Cell phones were beeping a barrage of instant messages as people in Yangon asked family and friends in other parts of the country to reject the draft constitution.

In addition to the ban on Suu Kyi, the constitution would bar thousands of her supporters from public office because they have been charged with crimes under the regime's draconian security laws, which include a ban on gatherings of more than five people.

The constitution explicitly says that the military must "be able to participate in the national leadership role of the state" and would give the commander in chief the power to appoint one-quarter of the members of both houses of Parliament, which would give the military veto power over any legislation.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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