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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.

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"There's a split between the West and Burma's Asian neighbors," said a Western diplomat based in Bangkok. "It's a difficult situation; our options are very limited."

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Seeking legitimacy

The constitution, drafted without participation from political parties, appears designed to consolidate the military's power while increasing its legitimacy in the eyes of neighboring countries eager to do business in the resource-rich country.

While many in Burma loathe the military and would most likely vote no if given the chance, analysts say a yes vote is nearly certain, because of the intimidation of opposition activists, state control over the voting process, the general lack of transparency, and low voter turnout expected after the cyclone.

The constitution took 14 years to write, but few people in the country have actually read it. It was completed in late February, and copies went on sale in late March for about a dollar – not a small amount in a country where the average income is about $85 per month and fuel and food costs are surging.

Sprinkled through the document are some fairly progressive clauses, including mandates for universal health care, environmental protection, and care for "mothers, children, and orphans." It loftily declares that the state aims for "discipline-flourishing genuine multiparty democracy" and "further burgeoning of the noblest and worthiest of worldly values, namely justice, liberty, and equality in the State."

Enshrining military power

But the constitution also guarantees the Army a place in the country's political leadership and says the military is free to operate independently.

It also bans the president from marrying a foreigner, which automatically disqualifies Suu Kyi, who was married to a British scholar who died in 1999. The constitution allocates 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the junta and gives the president liberal powers to declare a state of emergency under which all executive, legislative and judicial power is transferred to the Army chief and elected lawmakers lose their jobs. During this time, the Army chief has the power to restrict as many "fundamental rights" as he deems necessary.

Although the constitution is likely to pass, the cyclone and the junta's lackluster relief efforts could spell trouble for the military down the road. Protests in Burma typically occur as food supplies shrink prior to the harvest in October and November. It remains to be seen how much salt water from the cyclone's storm surge contaminated the country's "rice bowl" region.

"People are obviously angry at the military, but right now they are in survival mode," says Aung Naing Oo. "The full crisis may not hit the country until September. This whole area is basically nothing but fish and rice, and we can't underestimate the affect the cyclone may have on the country's food supply."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.