Myanmar held a national referendum yesterday despite warnings that more people would die unless the government focused on delivering emergency aid for survivors of last week’s cyclone.
In surreal scenes, voting booths were erected close to makeshift camps for the homeless, while the military regime continued to hold up tonnes of urgent relief supplies at the airport.
The junta, deeply suspicious of the outside world, has refused to let in foreign experts who specialize in getting aid to disaster victims, saying only the government would be allowed to distribute emergency supplies.
But the UN said that even the aid itself was being held up by the regime, strangled by customs and red tape as the country went ahead with a vote whose only goal, critics say, is to cement the regime’s hold on power.
“It’s a race against time,” said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the UN’s emergency relief arm.
He said only one-quarter of the neediest victims of Cyclone Nargis had received any kind of aid one week after the tragedy, which left 60,000 people dead or missing and as many as 2 million more short of food, water and supplies.
Some aid has been distributed, but more people could die of disease or starvation unless they get help soon. At least one planeload of food was stuck at the airport, not yet cleared for release.
Ignoring calls to put off the vote and focus on saving lives, the government went ahead with the referendum on a new constitution in all but the worst-affected areas — which will vote later in the month.
The regime says the vote is a key step in its much-criticized “road map” to democracy and will lead the country to national elections within two years.
But the last time there was a national ballot, in 1990, democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide. She was never allowed to rule, and has been under house arrest for much of the time since.
Among its provisions, the constitution would forever make it illegal for her to lead the country.
The regime, which has long scorned the opinion of the international community, has tried to mobilize the population to vote in favor of the constitution.
As it has for days, state TV yesterday broadcast patriotic songs urging people to approve the charter, alternating with images of planes unloading food — and military officers handing it out to the grateful poor.
While the military regime distributed international aid yesterday, it plastered the boxes with names of top generals in an apparent effort to turn the relief effort into a propaganda exercise.
State-run TV continuously ran images of top generals — including the junta leader, Senior General Than Shwe — handing out boxes of aid to survivors at elaborate ceremonies.
One box bore the name of Lieutenant General Myint Swe, a rising star in the government hierarchy, in bold letters that overshadowed a smaller label reading: “Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand.”
“We have already seen regional commanders putting their names on the side of aid shipments from Asia, saying this was gift from them and then distributing it in their region,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, which campaigns for human rights and democracy in the country.
“It is not going to areas where it is most in need,” Farmaner said in London.
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