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Burma Stages A Vote While Cyclone Victims Suffer

Burma Stages A Vote While Cyclone Victims Suffer


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Burma's regime focused its time, manpower and propaganda on winning approval for a new constitution on Saturday to increase the military's domination, while the U.N. and other organizations flew in aid to rescue more than one million neglected cyclone survivors.

Government-controlled TV showed repetitious loops of Burma's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, and other generals handing out aid boxes to victims during stilted events, while mostly ignoring the cyclone's rising death toll.

One aid box bore the name of a rising official, Lt. Gen. Myint Swe, in bold letters that distracted from a smaller label reading: "Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand," according to Associated Press.

The U.S. prepared to fly emergency provisions into the cyclone- wrecked commercial port of Rangoon, on its first cargo flight scheduled for Monday.

But Washington was unable to get Burma's approval to give the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) 10 Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) experts entry visas for Monday's flight, crushing hopes of a major U.S. airlift.

It was unclear who would handle Monday's U.S. aid after it lands in Burma, or if it would be seized by the junta.

The U.N. has some relief workers on the ground who may be allowed to transport the goods to the worst-hit Irrawaddy River delta.

Burma, a Texas-sized Southeast Asian nation also known as Myanmar, said about 23,000 people perished, and 42,000 disappeared when Cyclone Nargis hit on May 2 and 3.

The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon said the death toll could reach 100,000 because the regime has blocked most international relief efforts.

The U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP) decided to send in two relief flights on 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," the organization said in statement.

Burmese officials grabbed the WFP's aid after the flight landed, and were intent on having its troops distribute it without U.N. oversight, a possible violation of U.N. rules.

The regime's attempt to manipulate all incoming aid has fueled concern over possible theft, and the junta's inability or unwillingness to deliver aid to more than one million people stranded on the Irrawaddy delta.

International aid workers were pessimistic after the regime's indifference and blockades, and Burma's refusal to give foreign relief experts visas to escort deliveries.

A trickle of aid flights have arrived during the past few days from countries willing to let the regime handle distribution, including China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and Italy. Burma's generals, meanwhile, spent much of Saturday orchestrating a referendum on a new constitution. Citizens in Burma, an impoverished Buddhist-majority country, were told by the junta to vote "yes" for the draft constitution during polls held nationwide, except in delta areas where voting was to be delayed for two weeks because of the cyclone's destruction.

Burma's government-controlled media showed pictures of generals handing out aid boxes to emaciated survivors, but most broadcasts and reports stressed why people need to vote for the constitution.

"I would like to urge all to lead an easy life in the new democratic nation after casting a 'yes' vote for the constitution in the referendum," a commentary in the government-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper said on Friday, voicing the regime's typically one-sided, Potemkin-style rhetoric.

Many Burmese despise the junta, but some were expected to vote for the constitution because they feared the poll would not remain secret, and people who voted "no" might somehow be punished.

Some Burmese defiantly painted the word "no" on some buildings and streets, though dissent was rare and muted.

Observers predicted a majority "yes" vote, because Burma does not allow free speech, political debate, campaigning, or other norms of democracy.

Vote counting was expected to be done by regime officials, unmonitored by any independent or public scrutiny. About half of the country's estimated 60 million people were believed to be eligible to vote, but Burma lacks detailed census statistics.

For the past 10 years, the regime has been obsessed with writing a constitution to ensure the military holds at least one-quarter of Parliament's upper and lower houses, plus a handful of the most powerful ministries.

The new constitution also forbids the world's most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, from become president because her late husband was British, and her two sons are British, though she is a Burmese citizen.

She has chosen to remain under house arrest in Rangoon for 12 of the past 18 years, instead of leaving Burma and traveling to England, because the junta indicated they would never allow the thin, 62-year- old, Nobel Peace Prize laureate to return home if she departed.

After Saturday's vote, the junta was expected to use its constitution as a legal framework for an election in 2010, to try and legitimize their dictatorship, after ignoring the landslide victory of Mrs. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party in 1990.

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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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