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BURMA: Junta Gives Referendum Priority Over Cyclone Relief

Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, May 7 2008 (IPS) - Disregarding the disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis, Burma’s military rulers are bent on holding a constitutional referendum on Saturday, said to be designed to enhance the junta’s grip over the country.

Rangoon residents throng the bazaars for food, scarce in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Credit: Mizzima News

Rangoon residents throng the bazaars for food, scarce in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Credit: Mizzima News

"The relief efforts are being hampered by the junta’s obsession with getting the referendum vote over and done with," a western diplomat based in Rangoon told IPS on condition of anonymity.

According to reports over 70,000 people were killed and 30,000 more gone missing or presumed dead. Local Burmese aid officials believe that the death toll could rise to over a quarter of a million. At least two million people have been left homeless.

"The government&#39s attitude is that the referendum is the top priority and the cyclone is an inconvenience; we believe any government&#39s priority should be the humanitarian response rather than the referendum,’’ the diplomat added.

Undeterred by the desperate conditions facing nearly half of the country’s population concentrated in Rangoon, the country’s commercial centre and former capital, and the Irrawaddy Delta to the east – Burma’s rice bowl – the regime continues to call on the people to endorse the new constitution on Saturday.

"To approve the state constitution is a national duty of the entire people, let us all cast a ‘Yes’ vote in the national interest," state-run newspapers continue to urge all Burmese.

People are also being exhorted by state media to ‘resist foreign intervention’ though it is not clear whether this refers to the poll process or to desperately-needed international cyclone relief.

Paul Risley, spokesman for the United Nations&#39 World Food Programme (WFP) in Bangkok, said Thursday that the junta was yet to give clearance for relief flights to land in Burma. Acording to Risley, flights were still waiting to take off from Dubai, Dhaka and Thailand with high-energy biscuits.

The irony is that very few people have actually seen the draft constitution. In Rangoon, it sells for at least 1,000 kyat, the equivalent of one US dollar, in a country where 80 percent of families live on less than two dollars a day.

The cost varies in other parts of the country – from the equivalent of two dollars a copy in the Mon state, near the border with Thailand, to more than four dollars in the predominantly Muslim areas in Arakan and Rakhine states in the west near Bangladesh, according to Sai Khuensai Jaiyen, director of the Shan Herald Agency, a dissident publication based in northern Thailand.

In fact the government is hoping for a unanimous vote, though that is inconceivable unless the results are rigged – something which most diplomats in Rangoon believe is highly likely. There are no official opinion polls available and public sentiment is hard to gauge.

Rangoon’s taxi drivers – a good weather vane of public opinion – interviewed before the cyclone struck were of one mind: little is going to change by having a new constitution. "What’s the point of voting, they (the military) just order everyone around and don’t care what people think," said Min Thu, a taxi driver in Rangoon. "If they promise to reduce the cost of petrol, then I would certainly vote."

"I’m going to vote ‘yes’ because I’m tired of the top brass running the country, and doing it very badly," said a colonel who wanted to remain anonymous for safety reasons. "It’s time to get them out of government and a new constitution is the only sure way of doing that," he added.

Impoverished farmers in Burma’s once prosperous rice growing areas in the Irrawaddy Delta were delighted with the opportunity to tell the government what they think of them, a western aid worker told IPS on condition of anonymity. "It’s the first opportunity since the 1990 election that they have had to express themselves," she said. "And they see it as a referendum on the military government; so expect a resounding ‘no’ from them."

Of course, after the cyclone destroyed hundreds of villages in the Irrawaddy area, these farmers may no longer have an opportunity to voice their resentment. The vote has been postponed there – and may never happen. "Not only are the tens of thousands dead, the wind and water destroyed local and provincial offices, including the lists of registered voters," said an Asian diplomat. "They will not be able to recover those in the two weeks they have delayed the polls there."

Several opposition Burmese media organisations have been working clandestinely inside the country trying to collect an unofficial survey of electoral opinion on the referendum.

Burma News International (BNI) – an umbrella group of more than ten publications and agencies – which interviewed more than 2,000 voters across the county, before the cycloned struck, produced startling results.

Mu Hlaing Theint, secretary of the BNI, told IPS that a two-page questionnaire, to ensure statistical consistency, was used to compile the results from telephone and face-to-face interviews.

Almost seven out of ten interviewed said they had no idea what was in the constitution. One in four voters had still to make up their minds which way they would vote. So, despite the regime’s intensive propaganda campaign there remains a significant number of undecided voters.

Of those who said they would vote, more than two-thirds said they would vote no. Around one in ten said they intended to vote yes. Soldiers were most likely to vote yes – at a ratio of 2 to 1 – while government employees were almost evenly divided between yes and no votes.

Students, teachers, farmers, journalists and housewives overwhelmingly said they intended to reject the constitution. Housewives, shopkeepers, business people and traders were most undecided about which way to vote – 1 in 3 had yet to make up their minds.

The ‘no’ vote was also strongest in the areas that had large populations of ethnic minorities – Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan states – where well over 80 percent were going to vote against the constitution.

While these are not scientific results, they do reflect what observers are predicting will happen in these areas. The regime, well aware of the regional variations, has decided not to announce the results at each polling station or even provincial level. The only announcement will come from the equivalent of the electoral commission in the capital Naypidaw.

"This is very different from the 1990 elections, when the election results were made public at each local polling station," Zin Linn, a former political prisoner and now spokesman for the Burmese government-in-exile. "It means they will be able to manipulate the results to their own ends."

There is no doubt though that the real vote is not going to be announced – it has been rigged from the start. The junta has carried out a concerted campaign of harassing and intimidating voters. "The police called on our family last week and told us we had to vote ‘yes’ or we’d go to jail for three years,‘’ a middle-aged mother in Rangoon said over phone, on condition of anonymity.

"The whole process is surreal – to have a referendum where only those who are in favour of the constitution can campaign," former U.N. rapporteur for human rights in Burma Prof. Paulo Pinheiro told IPS.

"A referendum without some basic freedoms – of assembly, political parties and free speech – is a farce. What the Myanmar (Burmese) government calls a process of democratisation is in fact a process of consolidation of an authoritarian regime," Pinheiro added.

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