TOPICS : Junta gives referendum priority over relief

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. “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 said. According to the Burmese government over 70,000 people were killed and 30,000 more are 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’s attitude is that the referendum is the top priority and the cyclone is an inconvenience; we believe any government’s 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 UN 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 waiting to take off from Dubai, Dhaka and Thailand with 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% 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 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 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.” — IPS