Tue, May 13, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Junta ignores devastation to force vote

Even as aid agencies waited for the government to let them help the millions affected by Cyclone Nargis, the generals were forcing the Burmese to turn out for a referendum

By Ian MacKinnon  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

For the strongmen of Myanmar, nothing was going to stand in the way of the ballot. Not a devastating cyclone that reaped death and destruction on a biblical scale. Not the international aid community banging on the door to get in to help. So on Saturday, survivors of the cataclysm that may have left 116,000 dead and 1.9 million homeless were ordered to turn out and vote yes in the constitutional referendum by generals who have held their impoverished country in a grip of stone for 46 years.

Even as incoming aid was being impounded by the military as it landed at Yangon and other aircraft sat waiting at foreign airports, loaded with lifesaving cargoes but unable to fly in without permission from the authorities, state-run television was running rousing political broadcasts and offering occasional shots of immaculately uniformed generals handing over packages of food to grateful peasants. The military have so far admitted to a death toll of 28,458.

The only concession under the welter of international criticism and calls for the ballot to be postponed in the face of the crisis was a two-week postponement for those who had survived in the worst hit areas in Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta, areas that took the full force of Cyclone Nargis on May 4.

“The generals in Naypidaw [the new capital city] sense that with the referendum they’re on the cusp of something politically huge,” said one Western diplomat in Yangon. “So they find it very hard to change completely their way of operating and let aid teams in with free access.”

An extraordinary diplomatic war of words broke out last week between the entrenched regime, determined to hold power at any cost, and rumored to be engaged in their own internal power struggle, and the international community led by the UN.

With rising frustration it was trying to get aid and disaster experts into Myanmar to help those without water, food and shelter.

on their own

The limited success of the UN and other aid agencies left most survivors to fend for themselves, scavenging in the wreckage of their inundated homes and living side by side with bloated corpses. Only between 149,000 and 271,000 people — 10 percent of those affected — have been reached, Save the Children has said.

Aid agencies already in the country have been working flat out to reach people and distribute the meager emergency supplies that were stockpiled.

The advance preparations in the days before Nargis — the Urdu word for daffodil — were never going to be enough to cope with a disaster of such magnitude.

The UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the lead agency for disaster management, called aid agencies together in Yangon in the two days before the cyclone struck and established “clusters” — assigning each organization responsibilities.

None could have foreseen what Nargis would bring. It had been building in the warm tropical waters of the Bay of Bengal for almost a week, eagerly eyed by India and Bangladesh.

Cyclone Sidr, which hit Bangladesh last November killing 3,500, left them all too aware of Nargis’s potential.

The cyclone began to deepen and intensify, tracking slowly eastward before finally making landfall at Haing Kyi island just off the Irrawaddy delta at 10:30pm, on May 3. It packed winds of 200kph, gusting to 250kph. But a deadly combination of circumstances did the real damage.

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