Myanmar’s junta stages referendum despite cyclone, world criticism

May 10th, 2008 - 10:24 am ICT by admin  

Yangon, May 10 (DPA) Myanmar’s military rulers proceeded Saturday with a referendum intended to cement their political power despite international appeals to postpone the vote in the wake of Cyclone Nargis that could have killed 100,000 people. Voting began at 6.00 a.m. Saturday (2330 GMT Friday) as planned and was scheduled to end at 4.00 p.m.

Although the junta has postponed the vote to May 24 in 47 of the townships worst-hit by the cyclone, including much of the former capital Yangon, it rejected international appeals to delay the controversial referendum and concentrate on providing emergency relief.

An estimated 1.5 million people were affected by Cyclone Nargis, which crashed in to the central coastal region on May 2 and 3, leaving 23,000 dead and 42,000 missing according to official figures. Others estimate the death toll could reach 100,000.

The referendum is on a new constitution, drafted by a military-appointed forum, which will essentially allow the military control over future elected governments through a system of appointees in both the upper and lower legislative houses.

With many Burmese struggling for survival a week after the storm, the refusal to postpone the referendum seems an act of callousness that only this regime would dare carry out.

“According to Buddhist beliefs, people who are in mourning should go to the temple one week after the death of their loved ones and pray for them, so many people want to go to the temple today instead of the referendum,” said Win Min, a lecturer on Myanmar affairs at Chiang Mai University in neighbouring Thailand.

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, but its military rulers have a long traditional of belief in numerology and astrology.

Myanmar’s military supremo, Senior General Than Shwe, is believed to be the main proponent of continuing with the vote.

“He planned it so he does not want to change it, partly for astrological reasons and partly because he may be worried that things are going to get worse if he waits,” said Win Min.

Than Shwe is also believed to be behind the regime’s reluctance to grant visas to United Nations and other emergency relief experts who have been seeking to enter the country this week to facilitate a disaster relief effort for the Burmese people.

The junta has made clear that while they welcome aid, they want to distribute the goods themselves, a tactic that flies in the face of international norms.

A refusal to allow World Food Programme (WFP) officials from accompanying a delivery of high-energy biscuits to the country Friday afternoon resulted in the halt of all deliveries for a short period.

“The World Food Programme has decided to send in two relief flights as planned (Saturday), while discussions continue with the government of Myanmar on the distribution of the food that was flown in (Friday), and not released to WFP,” said the WFP in a statement.

The junta-caused hiccup, which threatened to stop all UN aid deliveries to the country, came hours before the UN appealed for $187 million to fund international efforts to assist Myanmar’s cyclone victims.

An estimated 13 million people of Myanmar’s population of 53 million live in areas hit by the cyclone. The most severely affected population was estimated at 1.5 million.

The $187 million should enable 10 UN organizations and nine non-governmental organizations to support the government’s efforts to assist those worst affected, the UN said.

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