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Junta in Burma (Myanmar) presses ahead with vote, rebuffs most aid efforts

Critics say the junta's May 10 constitutional referendum is meant to enshrine military rule. Pledges of assistance continued to grow Friday.

By Daniel Ten KateCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2008

Bangkok, Thailand

Burma's reclusive junta plans to push ahead with a referendum on a controversial Army-drafted constitution Saturday, even as its most populous province lies in ruins after last week's devastating cyclone.

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The military is hoping the referendum, and a planned general election in 2010, can deflect renewed international pressure to open talks with Burma's opposition parties after soldiers used guns last September to quash a popular uprising.

Opposition groups, however, say the referendum is a sham to avoid meaningful dialogue. The cyclone prompted the junta to push the referendum date to May 24 in 47 affected towns, which include about one third of the population.

Still, holding the vote elsewhere in the country after one of the worst natural disasters in decades is prompting strong criticism.

"People are trying to find food and water, and the last thing on their mind is politics," says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Thailand. "In those areas affected by the cyclone, nobody is talking about the referendum. They are wondering when aid will arrive."

Junta still impeding aid

The military-ruled government's foot-dragging in providing relief and opening the door to outside aid workers may stem from fear that foreigners might observe the first vote of any kind in the country since Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest in Burma, led her NLD to a sweeping election victory 18 years ago.

"This is a major crisis and Burma's military is not providing assistance," says Soe Aung, an NLD member elected in 1990 who is part of Burma's exile government. "We need international help. In this situation it's totally unacceptable to have a referendum. It should be postponed and the international community should be allowed in to help the people who are dying."

Three Red Cross aid flights carrying shelter kits and other urgent supplies landed in Myanmar Friday without incident. But the junta seized two planeloads of aid, including 38 tons of high-energy biscuits, sent by the United Nations, prompting the UN to suspend its efforts. The UN later said that it would resume flights, sending in two more planeloads of supplies.

The UN estimates that the storm affected about a million people, and the death toll could rise dramatically in the next few weeks due to disease and the lack of fresh water, food, shelter, and medical facilities. The WFP has distributed 90 tons of rice to people in Rangoon and surrounding areas, and seven tons of high-energy biscuits.

This is "nothing when you are talking about a million people in need," says Erika Joergensen, the WFP's deputy regional director for Asia. "All aid workers are having trouble obtaining visas. It's going very slow."