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Myanmar prepares for vote amid cyclone ruin

Myanmar's junta is asking voters in regions still devastated by the cyclone to approve a new constitution, even with two million people still hungry and homeless.

world Updated: May 22, 2008 15:14 IST

Myanmar's junta is asking voters in regions still devastated by the cyclone to approve a new constitution Saturday, even with two million people still hungry and homeless three weeks after the storm.

The regime has already declared a 92.4 percent victory in the first round of voting on May 10, which was held in regions that were spared by the cyclone.

Now polling is set to take place in the hardest-hit parts of the Irrawaddy Delta and the main city of Yangon, where people are still mourning the 133,000 people dead or missing in the disaster.

"It just goes to show the priorities of the regime, that they think this process is more important than an emergency relief," said Dave Mathieson, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Emergency food, shelter and medicine have yet to reach remote villages in the delta, while tens of thousands of people are living in temporary shelters, according to the United Nations.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who had urged the regime to delay the vote, is visiting Myanmar to press the regime to accept a full-scale relief effort and to attend a donors' conference on Sunday in Yangon.

But he will leave Myanmar Friday night and return Sunday morning, apparently to avoid being in the country during the referendum.

Even though aid has yet to reach all the survivors, the military appears determined that ballots will be cast around the region on Saturday.

"They're finding food, trying to survive, the last thing they want is politics and a referendum," said Aung Naing Oo, a Myanmar analyst based in Thailand.

"But I would not be surprised if the Burmese military didn't turn those victims' shelters into polling stations and if they brought in people from outside to vote for the referendum. The process is entirely underhand."

Evacuees living in government-run camps say that soldiers have combed through tents, taking down names to add to the voters' roll.

"They go around asking people if they are 18 years old, so they can put them on the voter rolls," said one volunteer who has been delivering food aid to victims in the cyclone disaster zone.

"The evacuees will do whatever the authorities want, if they are given food," she told AFP.
The outcome of the vote on Saturday will have little impact on whether the constitution is approved, because the junta has already declared such a large victory in the first round, analysts said.

Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which says the constitution will enshrine military rule, has denounced the balloting, accusing the regime of forcing people to vote and refusing to allow ballots to be cast in secret.

The party has also condemned the regime for holding the vote while ignoring the needs of cyclone survivors.
Among its provisions, the constitution would make it illegal for Aung San Suu Kyi to ever hold office, while reserving one-quarter of seats in parliament for the military.

The voting comes just three days before her party will mark the anniversary of its 1990 election victory, when Aung San Suu Kyi led her followers to a landslide.

The party was never allowed to rule, and she has been under house arrest for much of the time since. The military is expected to extend her detention by Monday.