From Democratic Voice of Burma, May 10:
The Burmese military regime held its national referendum in most of the country today, despite criticism from those who said it should be prioritising assistance for the victims of Cyclone Nargis.
The junta announced it would go ahead with the 10 May referendum as planned in all but the most severely affected areas, where voting would be delayed until 24 May. Critics have said the regime is neglecting the victims of the cyclone in its determination to see the draft constitution approved.
“The people should be the priority at this time as they are suffering the devastation caused by the natural disaster,” said National League for Democracy spokesperson U Nyan Win. “The government’s announcement on the referendum shows how little they care for the people—they have no sympathy at all for the people.”
United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon joined the calls for the government to prioritise aid efforts over the referendum. “Due to the scope of the disaster facing Myanmar today, however, the Secretary-General believes that it may be prudent to focus instead on mobilising all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts,” a UN statement said on 8 May.
The regime’s decision to go ahead with the vote raised questions not just about neglected priorities but also the junta’s confidence in calling for a vote at a time when its popularity would be expected to have plummeted.
Survivors of the cyclone have spoken of the lack of government assistance as they struggled to find food and shelter, search for the bodies of loved ones and rebuild their homes.
Reports that the government had advance warning of the cyclone but did not take sufficient steps to warn its people and evacuate danger zones can also have done little to bolster support for the regime.
And the intransigence of the government as aid workers and emergency supplies are delayed by visa restrictions and customs requirements has brought its international reputation to a new low.
But it seems that, far from worrying about its own difficulties in managing a referendum and relief operation at the same time, the junta may instead be hoping that the international community’s attention is drawn from the vote by the scale of the natural disaster.
The devastating cyclone and the massive aid operation needed to get assistance to the estimated 1.5 million people affected have dominated international headlines in the past week.
The Burmese government could be assuming that the unfolding tragedy will leave little room for international scrutiny for a referendum that seeks to further entrench military rule and whose outcome has long been seen as a foregone conclusion.
With foreign nationals still struggling to enter the country to support aid efforts, damage to infrastructure making travel to many areas difficult and communications still patchy, getting assistance to cyclone victims is more of a priority than monitoring the referendum.
The junta had already set in motion a campaign of pressure and incentives when the referendum date was announced, and continued to rely on intimidation and voter confusion to secure a “Yes” vote as people went to the polls today.
A resident of Myingyan, Upper Burma, described how voters were told to mark the “Yes” box on the voting slip but were led to believe they voted by choosing the relevant ballot box.
“They are deliberately making it confusing for people,” he said. “They told people to tick ‘Yes’ and people just did it. They put out three or four ballot boxes and made people think the choice of ballot box was the choice between ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”
In Kyonpyaw, locals said official announcements were broadcast over loudspeakers saying that those who voted “No” would face a three-year prison sentence and a fine of 100,000 kyat.
A resident of Kyaukpadaung said that in Letpanpin and Poppa villages, only the heads of families were allowed to vote on behalf of all eligible voters in their households, and were instructed to vote “Yes.”
The contrast between the slow pace of relief and the speed with which the regime has resumed its intimidation of opponents has not passed unnoticed.
The people of Burma remain in desperate need after the devastation of a natural disaster compounded by a lack of assistance from a government focused on its own survival rather than that of its people.
See our last post on Burma.