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Myanmar votes in time of death

Myanmar's ruling junta holds a referendum for a new army-drafted Constitution, while nearly 1.5 mn cyclone survivors await food, shelter and medicine.Toll could cross one lakh

world Updated: May 11, 2008 01:48 IST

Tears welled up in a young woman’s eyes as she left a polling station north of Yangon on Saturday. It was the first ballot she'd cast in her life, but its purpose seemed almost irrelevant in Hlehu.

Her home in a nearby village was destroyed when Cyclone Nargis swept through Myanmar last week, and her family is still struggling to find shelter and a way to rebuild their lives.

"Half of our village was destroyed, but we have to vote anyway," the 23-year-old said. "I cast a ‘Yes’ vote, because everyone else did, but I don't know anything about the constitution.”

The cyclone that tore into Myanmar's south last weekend killed tens of thousands of people, and has left 1.5 million others in desperate need of shelter, food and medicine.

The military regime has allowed only a trickle of international aid into the country and devoted its own scarce resources to conducting a referendum Saturday, asking voters to approve a constitution that will give the generals broad powers.

The junta did postpone the voting by two weeks in the hardest-hit parts of the country, including the main city of Yangon and remote regions of the Irrawaddy delta, but critics said it should have been rescheduled entirely.

In many of the regions where voting is taking place, communities are grappling with the sudden arrival of hundreds of evacuees who have lost their families, their homes and their livelihoods.

In the trading town of Pathein, on the edge of the Irrawaddy delta, a dozen voters showed up to cast ballots shortly after polling stations opened -- while down the street hundreds of desperate cyclone survivors were building makeshift shelters on a football field.

"Many of the residents here feel so angry at the government when we see victims of the storm coming to our town. Many of them have received no help in their villages where the storm hit," said one 40-year-old teashop owner as he lined up to vote.

"People are not that interested in voting. What we care about is the storm victims," he said. “Many of them are disgusted with the government. It has been so slow to help people.”

One man said he would vote against the constitution to express his anger at the junta's deadly crackdown on Buddhist monks last September, when security forces fired on and beat up monks leading mass protests in the streets of Yangon.

“I'm thinking about the monks as I go to vote, because I am Buddhist. I am not going to support the government that killed the monks,” the 48-year-old betel nut seller said.

Even people who escaped the storm unscathed said that voting came second to their daily struggle to survive.

“I have to sell this fruit first. I will go and vote in the afternoon,” said a sidewalk vendor near a polling station.

“I have to get money first so my family can survive. I can only vote once I have enough money to eat,” she said.