Monday, May 12, 2008

Burma sham referendum takes place in the shadow of Nargis

According to the Bangkok Post, early results from Burma’s charade of a referendum is showing overwhelming support for the new pro-military charter. With widespread heavy intimidation of its citizens, and civil servants ordered to vote yes, the vote is a complete sham. A government source told the Post that almost 100 percent of voters in one Rangoon township have voted for the new constitution while districts in Mandalay and Shan State recorded over 90 percent votes in favour. The military junta rejected calls to delay the vote due to Cyclone Nargis which struck a week ago killing tens of thousands and leaving 1.5 million homeless.

Aid is slowly trickling in. UN aid flights resumed on the weekend, with three planes and a delivery of trucks. This came a day after the UN halted aid flights after the regime seized an initial delivery of high-energy biscuits and relief equipment. An International Red Cross plane also arrived with medical supplies and 35 tonnes of equipment intended to provide prisoners with clean drinking water. The Thai Royal Family also chartered a plane with 18 tonnes of aid. However the Burmese micro-management of the relief effort has stretched to placing aid in boxes plastered with names of top generals. Local TV made a big deal of top General Than Shwe handing out aid packages to survivors at elaborate ceremonies.

Nonetheless Shwe and his confreres refused to countenance delay of the referendum in order to help the cyclone victims. The exiled National League for Democracy was one of the many groups aghast at the government’s appalling insensitivity. Spokesman Soe Aung speaking from Bangkok pleaded in vain with the international community to pressure the regime to defer the referendum in order to address the devastation caused by the cyclone. The only action taken so far is to delay the referendum to 24 May in the Irrawaddy Division and some parts of Rangoon. Meanwhile with the delta region mired in a massive humanitarian tragedy and aid groups kept frustratingly out of the country, the Burmese Government has pressed on in the rest of the country with its change to the constitution aimed at codifying the military’s role as the pre-eminent power in the country.

There is little doubt that the referendum is more important to Burma’s generals than the relief effort. State-run television ran songs from young cheerful women urging citizens to forget the catastrophe and go to the polling stations. "Let's go to cast a vote . . . with sincere thoughts for happy days," the women sang. The government diverted soldiers and military vehicles from relief work to ensure that the referendum went smoothly. Instead of delivering aid, trucks roamed the streets for days, blaring constant messages on loudspeakers telling people to vote.

The generals have much to gain from getting out the vote. Victory will set their power enshrined. Under the new constitution, the military would gain a permanent 25-per-cent share of all seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament - enough to veto any changes to the constitution. No president could be chosen without consulting the military. There is also a clause which bars anyone who has been married to a foreign national from holding political office. This is directly aimed at Aung San Suu Kyi who married a British academic and is therefore disqualified.

In February, Human Rights Watch declared the referendum a sham, calling it “a hollow exercise in the military’s sham political reform process”. HRW said the referendum lacked credibility as it did not have the support of opposition political parties, did not involve public debate and did not allow the media to report on the process of drafting a new constitution. “Burma is a dictatorship that lacks the safeguards needed to ensure a free and fair referendum,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “Unless there is a fundamental change of course by the authorities, a referendum in this environment will have little credibility.” With more than a million citizens on the verge of starvation and disease, Burma’s rulers show no indication this credibility is in any way important to them.

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