Burma Starts Vote As Aid Trickles In

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the nation's largest city and rice-producing delta on May 3, 2008. More storms headed toward the country as the U.N. warned that inadequate relief efforts could lead to rising death tolls.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 11, 2008

BANGKOK, May 10 -- Burma's ruling junta went ahead with a constitutional referendum Saturday, as foreign aid slowly trickled into the storm-ravaged country, where tens of thousands of people are dead or missing since a cyclone struck a week ago.

Although the final results of polling may not come until later this month, after areas hardest hit by the storm are able to vote, the controversial new draft constitution is all but assured of passage by a comfortable margin. Wire services reported widespread intimidation of voters and a government media campaign directing people to vote yes.

Leaders of the military regime that took power in 1988 describe the proposed charter as part of their "road map to democracy." The junta has also pledged to hold nationwide elections by 2010. After the last elections, which the junta lost to the party of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in 1990, it rejected the results and restrained pro-democracy leaders.

But the proposed constitution, in the making since 1993, has been widely criticized for guaranteeing 25 percent of the seats in parliament to the military and for a clause allowing unelected leaders to seize executive and legislative power in a state of emergency. It would also bar Suu Kyi, who has been detained for much of the past 18 years, from seeking office.

Human rights organizations condemned the decision to conduct the long-awaited nationwide ballot as the country veers toward a humanitarian crisis. More than 1 million people have reportedly been left homeless since Tropical Cyclone Nargis slammed into the country last weekend.

"It's just another example of how the regime does not care at all about its own population," said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, which he said maintains a local network in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, and beyond. "Their priority is military rule, so they're building polling stations instead of shelter."

A standoff continued Saturday between the junta and international relief organizations seeking permission to land planeloads of supplies for distribution in the Irrawaddy Delta, the coastal region overwhelmed by the cyclone's fierce tidal surge.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) early Saturday afternoon sent a two-truck convoy carrying 20 tons of tents and plastic sheets into Burma from Mae Sot, in northwestern Thailand, the first overland relief allowed into the country since the crisis began.

"This convoy marks a positive step in an aid effort so far marked by challenges and constraints," said Raymond Hall, the agency's representative in Thailand, in a written statement. "We hope it opens up a possible corridor to allow more international aid to reach the cyclone victims."

A UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, Ron Redmond, said it could take at least 24 hours for the supplies to reach the affected areas, since many of Burma's already deteriorated roadways were blocked or damaged by the storm.

Earlier Saturday morning, the U.N. World Food Program began airlifting 100 more tons of shelter supplies from a stockpile in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The first flight was slated to arrive Saturday evening, with two others scheduled for early next week.

The generals who govern Burma, which has been under military rule and relatively isolated from the outside world since 1962, have insisted since the present crisis began that the military must control the distribution of any foreign aid. Relief workers say those in the most devastated areas have received virtually no help.

"We haven't spoken to anyone who's gotten any help at all," Farmaner said.

The World Food Program has accused Burma's government of seizing earlier shipments that landed at Rangoon's main airport, and wire services reported Saturday that international shipments distributed by the military bore newly affixed photos of the ruling generals. An American aid flight has reportedly been approved to land in Burma on Monday.

Amid the continuing stalemate, some activists are calling on the international community to deliver food aid by force, if necessary. Health experts are concerned that the death toll, which a top U.S. diplomat has said could be as high as 100,000, could grow exponentially if starvation and disease spread. The most recent official tally from the Burmese government is just over 23,000.

"We've seen how weak the results have been with the international community going with this softly, softly approach," Farmaner said. "We need a U.N. resolution to allow them to go in at this point without permission. People on the ground are crying out, saying we need to get in, it's been a week without clean water, shelter and food, and they're surrounded by rotting bodies."

Redmond, of the UNHCR, rejected that. "What we do inside a country, we do with permission of the host government," he said.

Aid workers also expressed concern about the forecast of heavy rain in the coming days.

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