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.
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."
The UN and Red Cross have sent out about 15 assessment teams into the region that will report back in the next few days. The WFP has already issued an emergency appeal for $54 million, which would feed 630,000 people for six months, although that number could change when new information becomes available.
The International Organization for Migration says it is asking for $8 million. The UN refugee agency says it needs $6 million to fund the immediate shelter and household needs of 250,000 people.
Aid pledges grow
As of Thursday, the UN had tallied donations of $25 million from 28 nations, the European Union, and charities. An additional $25 million has been pledged by donors.
That amount rose Friday, when Japan pledged $10 million in aid, through the UN. France announced that it was sending a navy ship loaded with 1,500 tons of humanitarian aid to Burma. The Gates Foundation also donated $3 million via aid agencies Mercy Corps, Worldvision, and CARE, and will provide software to help reunite family members separated in the cyclone, founder Bill Gates said.
A British travel company donated a luxury cruise liner to transport relief and 25,000 shoes were sent by a US-based international aid group, Soles4Souls, though the shipment was not yet allowed into the country.
The junta, said in a statement that it was grateful for outside assistance, which has included 11 chartered planes of supplies, but that the best way to help was to offer aid rather than personnel. The government itself was capable of delivering aid to affected areas, it asserted.
A flight from Qatar was turned back after landing in Rangoon Thursday because a search-and-rescue team and media members were on board who did not have clearance to enter the country. But the junta did agree to allow one American cargo plane to bring in supplies, though it continued to bar any foreign workers from coming in to distribute them.
Some analysts suspect that the military will start to allow in more aid workers in after Saturday's vote. The UN and a growing number of countries have urged the junta to open its borders – even China, a key Burma ally that says it does not like to comment on the "internal affairs" of other countries, has said it hopes Burma "will cooperate with the international community."
Yet the international community remains deeply divided on Burma. The US, Europe, Canada, and Australia have been largely uniform in calling for a more inclusive democratization process, while countries vying for Burma's rich natural gas resources – China, Russia, India, and Thailand, to name a few – have been much more subdued. Burma's neighbors are also more accustomed to large-scale natural disasters and would probably see little reason to postpone the referendum.
"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."
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.