YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s military rulers held a referendum Saturday aimed at solidifying their hold on power while brazenly turning cyclone relief efforts into a propaganda campaign. In some cases, generals’ names were scribbled onto boxes of foreign aid before being distributed.
Human rights organizations and dissident groups have bitterly accused the junta of neglecting disaster victims in going ahead with the vote, which seeks public approval of a new constitution.
The referendum came just one week after Cyclone Nargis left more than 60,000 people dead or missing. The U.N. estimates that at least 1.5 million people have been severely affected.
Aye Aye Mar, a 36-year-old homemaker, looked frightened when asked if she thought anyone would vote against the referendum.
“One vote of ‘No’ will not make a difference,” she whispered, her eyes darting. Then she raised her voice to declare: “I’m saying ‘Yes’ to the constitution.”
Though international aid has started to trickle in – with two more planes organized by the U.N. World Food Program landing at Yangon’s airport Saturday – almost all foreign relief workers have been barred entry into the isolated nation. The junta says it wants to hand out all donated supplies on its own.
But with roads blocked and bridges submerged, reaching isolated areas in the hard-hit delta has been made all but impossible. The military has only a few dozen helicopters, most small and old. It also has about 15 transport planes, few of which are able to carry massive amounts of supplies.
Long lines formed in front of government centers, where minuscule rations of rice and oil were being distributed. Elsewhere, people clustered on roadsides hoping for handouts. The words “Help us!” were written in chalk on the side of one home.
“Please, don’t wait too long,” said Ma Thein Htwe, 49, who waited with dozens of other women and children at a monastery in Kungyangon for her ration of rice.
Ko Zaw Min, 27, said not enough aid was reaching his community. Each family was given just over a pound a day.
Despite international appeals to postpone the constitutional referendum, voting began Saturday in all but the hardest hit parts of the country.
As lines formed, state-run television continuously ran images of top generals, including junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe, handing out boxes of aid at elaborate ceremonies.
“We have already seen regional commanders putting their names on the side of aid shipments from Asia, saying this was a 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 has been 18 years since the last poll, and many people had no idea how to vote.
Myanmar has been ruled by military regimes since 1962. The current junta seized power in 1988, throwing out the country’s last constitution.
The referendum seeks public approval of a new one, which the generals say will be followed in 2010 by a general election. Both votes are elements of what the junta calls its “roadmap to democracy.”
But the proposed constitution guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and allows the president to hand over all power to the military in a state of emergency – elements critics say defy the junta’s professed commitment to democracy.
It also would bar Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement, from public office. The military refused to honor the results of the 1990 general election won by her National League for Democracy party.