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Burma Blocks Aid, Fearing Subversive Foreigners

Burma Blocks Aid, Fearing Subversive Foreigners


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Burma has blocked the cyclone-stricken country from most international relief efforts, and is instead telling citizens to vote on Saturday for a new constitution which will entrench the military regime's domination.

Burma's junta apparently fears U.S. and other foreign aid groups will include subversive agents who could secretly give satellite telephones, weapons, cash and other help to Burmese dissidents and pro-democracy activists -- a perception frequently expressed in government-controlled media about Americans and others even before the cyclone.

Increasingly harsh demands by the U.S., United Nations, non- governmental aid agencies, and others to allow foreign relief workers into Burma were ignored on Friday, despite a spiraling death toll after Cyclone Nargis killed tens of thousands of people, and an estimated one million survivors struggling without help.

The junta said 22,997 people perished in the cyclone and 42,119 were missing in southern Burma, mainland Southeast Asia's biggest country and also known as Myanmar.

The U.S. Embassy in Burma estimated the toll may reach 100,000. Bloated, rotting corpses were floating in salty water on Friday where many of Burma's rice farms remained flooded by tidal swells brought ashore when the Bay of Bengal cyclone whipped the sea-level south coast on May 2 and 3.

A trickle of aid has been allowed from countries friendly to the junta, such as Thailand, India, China, Bangladesh, Laos, Singapore and Italy.

Nations perceived as enemies, especially the U.S. and most other European powers, were told to deliver cash and boxes of aid to the stricken commercial port of Rangoon, but no foreign personnel to oversee distribution.

"The Burmese government is blocking international aid efforts in part to keep foreigners out until the (constitution) voting is over," Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Friday.

"But those without clean water, food or medical care can't wait any longer for help. They need it now. It's time to pull the plug on the referendum and open up to aid workers and their supplies," she said.

"A certain powerful country will not be happy with the approval of the constitution," said the government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Friday, obviously referring to its biggest enemy, the U.S.

The Pentagon is "desperate to station their military bases in our country. Moreover, if the constitution is approved, there will be no puppet government in the country," it said, a defensive chorus it has echoed for the past few decades.

Increasingly vocal international criticism against the regime has done little to budge the generals into issuing visas so foreigners can help relieve the suffering of survivors on the devastated Irrawaddy River delta.

Burma has instead ordered its 500,000-strong, battle-hardened army to secure the country for Saturday's vote for a new constitution, and has monopolized the country's media to explain why citizens should vote "yes".

"The previous constitutions had some defects regarding the rights of national [minority] races, and that provoked armed insurrection and destabilization," the regime said on Friday, referring to ethnic guerrillas fighting for autonomy or independence along Burma's borders during the past 50 years.

The new, severe, 194-page draft constitution has taken the regime about 10 years to write and offer for public scrutiny.

The constitution's opening clauses call "for the Tatmadaw [military] to be able to participate in the national leadership role of the State" -- effectively allowing the junta to retain its dictatorial role, which began after a 1962 army coup.

Twenty-five percent of the seats in the new Parliament's upper and lower houses would be filled by military appointees, chosen by the armed forces' commander-in-chief.

Other seats can be filled by elected officials, but military officers would be allowed as candidates and enjoy an advantage over civilians, thus increasing the overall number of troops running the country.

Similarly, one-quarter of all state and regional parliaments would also be hand-picked by the commander-in-chief.

A slew of other advantages for military officers to fill the role of president, vice-president, and other top positions are also outlined in the draft constitution.

Ministers for defense, interior, border affairs and their deputies are reserved for military officers, to ensure they wield the real power.

Any possible civilian moves against the army's control is crushed by a clause which emphasizes the military "has the right to independently administer all affairs concerning the armed forces."

The world's most famous political prisoner, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, would be blocked from ever ruling Burma, despite her National League for Democracy party winning a landslide election victory in 1990.

She has been under house arrest in Rangoon, also known as Yangon, for 12 of the past 18 years.

The new constitution says she cannot be president because her late husband, academic Michael Aris, was British, and their two sons currently hold British citizenship -- though Mrs. Suu Kyi remains a Burmese citizen.

"The President of the Union himself [sic], parents, spouse, children and their spouses shall not owe allegiance to any foreign power, shall not be subject of a foreign power, or citizens of a foreign country," the draft constitution said.

"There is no need to ask why the Tatmadaw [military] wants to engage in the national politics," a government-controlled commentary said on Friday, praising the new constitution.

"Whenever politicians committed misconduct, they were disunited, and vied each other for power. They turned to armed revolt, and the Tatmadaw had to sacrifice many lives of its members" to restore law and order.

"Actually, politicians by nature are harmful to the nation," the New Light of Myanmar columnist said.

"If the constitution is approved, the 1990 election results they stick to will be dissolved automatically."

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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