Despite Disaster, Controversial Burma Referendum Will Go Ahead

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - Burma's military rulers, under fire for their response to a devastating cyclone that has cost at least 22,000 lives, are pressing ahead with plans to hold a weekend referendum on a new constitution despite the humanitarian disaster.

Apart from a two-week postponement in the hardest-hit areas of the Southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar, the referendum will go ahead as scheduled on Saturday, the government announced in its New Light of Myanmar mouthpiece.

"The referendum is only a few days away and the people are eagerly looking forward to voting," it said in a statement.

The junta has been criticized, by First Lady Laura Bush among others, for not doing enough to warn citizens about the approaching Cyclone Nargis last week, and for an "inept" response after it hit.

U.N. and other aid agencies have reported delays in waiving visa requirements for aid workers wanting to enter the country. The Pentagon said Tuesday a U.S. Navy group including an amphibious vessel and U.S. Marines was standing by off neighboring Thailand awaiting permission to help the relief effort.

"We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who've lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation," President Bush said at the White House.

Speaking after signing into law a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest, Bush said the junta must allow U.S. Agency for International Development disaster response assessment teams into the country.

"Let the United States come to help you, help the people," he urged Burma's leaders.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that if the USAID personnel were denied entry, they would continue to work from Bangkok, Thailand and to cooperate with whatever agencies were able to get into Burma.

USAID has allocated $3 million for relief in addition to an initial emergency contribution of $250,000 in food aid, announced on Monday.

"This $3 million will go a long way, but also if we could get our ships there to be able to help them, more and more people could be helped," Perino said.

The Christian charity World Vision said its team in Burma estimates that up to two million people may be affected by the cyclone. "The destruction is unbelievable," World Vision representative Kyi Minn was quoted as saying from Rangoon. "Elderly people are saying this is the worst storm they have ever seen."

Rangoon, Burma's largest city, also known as Yangon, has been declared a disaster zone, although the situation in the coastal plain is reported to be significantly worse, with many areas still cut off due to extensive flooding.

State media report that more than 22,000 people have died and another 41,000 are missing, and there are fears the death toll could rise significantly.

As the scale of the disaster becomes more evident and the World Health Organization warns of possible disease outbreaks among the many left homeless, the government's decision to push ahead with the referendum plan is drawing condemnation.

"In the wake of this overwhelming disaster, it is devastating to see that the military regime gives priority to the constitutional referendum over protecting the social plight of people," Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) said in a statement that also called for stepped-up international aid.

Holding the referendum at this time would be "absurd," said the Asian Human Rights Commission, estimating that as many as one in four enrolled voters had been affected by the storm.

"To expend the energy of government officers on that exercise rather than the needs of the populace at this critical time would do nothing but demonstrate to the entire world the implausibility of the country's government and everything upon which it pretends to stand," the Hong Kong-based organization said.

'Justification for a power grab'

Critics, including the NLD, say the proposed new constitution is aimed at legitimizing and prolonging military rule.

Released for the first time last month, the proposed document will set aside 25 percent of seats in both houses of parliament for appointees of the junta, known formally as the State Peace and Development Council, which will as a result have effective veto power over any future changes to the constitution. A clause on eligibility for political office will also bar Suu Kyi, because she was formerly married to a foreign citizen.

The referendum process itself has also been widely condemned. International observers have been banned, and the junta has not allowed those opposed to the constitution campaign for a "no" vote. State-controlled media are only permitted to report in support of the constitution, observers say.

The U.S. House of Representatives -- in a 413-1 vote on Tuesday -- passed a resolution condemning the referendum process and proposed new constitution, and urging the junta to enter dialogue with the pro-democracy opposition.

New Jersey Democrat Rep. Rush Holt, who introduced the measure, in a statement called the referendum "bogus, fraudulent, spurious, and phony ... use whatever words you want, but it is important the United States stands strong with the people of Burma, stands for true democracy, and stands firmly against this justification for a power grab."

It remains unclear why Burma's government did not give citizens more warning of the impending disaster.

Between April 27 and when the cyclone made landfall in Burma late on May 2, the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii issued 20 cyclone warnings.

Other warnings came from the India Meteorological Department in New Delhi, which has regional responsibility for tracking cyclones, and the Thailand-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, which was set up after the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

"Although they were aware of the threat, Burma's state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path," the First Lady's charged during a statement to reporters at the White House on Monday.

"People across the region complain of a lack of warning as the storm approached," reported the Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based independent newspaper focusing on Burma.

The paper said in an editorial the junta's "totally inadequate" response to the cyclone showed it to be "incapable of running the country."

"The referendum should be postponed and the government's efforts devoted totally to helping the cyclone victims," it said.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. The current junta in 1990 allowed multiparty elections, but when the NLD won it ignored the result and held onto power. Last September, protests led by Buddhist monks drew a harsh military response, and at least 30 people were killed.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow