Despite Disaster, Burma Has a Forced Vote

As the swollen bodies of thousands of dead floated in the stagnant floodwaters of the Irrawaddy Delta Saturday, Burmese citizens were prodded by the country’s ruling generals to vote for the first time in 18 years in a rigged constitutional referendum.

The vote, just eight days after Cyclone Nargis caused the worst destruction ever wrought on the delta, Rangoon and other areas, came in the face of international appeals to put it off and devote the resources to aid the relief effort. The latest death toll is 28,858, with 33,416 listed as missing. The US expects the toll to go above 100,000. More than a million people are homeless. The United Nations Sunday projected that at least two thirds of the 1.5 million people who need help are still without it.

Nonetheless, on Sunday the junta claimed an overwhelming vote in regions where the referendum went ahead. It was delayed for three weeks in 47 townships affected by the cyclone: 40 in Rangoon Division and seven in Irrawaddy Division. Burma watchers, human rights groups and opposition organizations have predicted that the constitution will pass despite a campaign by opposition groups to encourage people to vote against it.

Although foreign journalists and Burmese working for foreign news services were not allowed near polling stations, opposition groups are reporting many incidents of intimidation and vote rigging. There have been numerous reports of authorities instructing village leaders to cast “yes” votes, of pre-marked ballots being handed out and harassment of voters.

Ballots were reportedly ripped out of hands and “yes” votes marked by election officials. Votes were cast in the presence of soldiers, police and fire fighters ‑ a normally benign group, but in Burma given paramilitary training – both inside and outside polling stations. There are also reports that the junta’s mass organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and the paramilitary Swan Ah Shin, which was involved in the violent crackdown on protestors in September, were also present at the polling stations.

Decades of fear instilled by the military dictatorship since it took over the country in 1962 have made most people apprehensive of defying the generals. September’s bloody thrashing of protesters, in which the UN estimates 31 people were killed, was only the latest major incident. The regime also has increased state-sponsored intimidation, including laws banning anti-referendum activities, the arrest of activists and the beating of political opposition figures.

As the extent of the damage from Cyclone Nargis has become clear, the world has seen pictures of entire villages that were wiped out. Much of the Irrawaddy Delta is still cut off and fears of malaria, typhus, dengue fever and cholera outbreaks are rising. In what the UN has called an unprecedented move, the generals refused to grant visas to humanitarian relief experts waiting in Thailand, apparently out of fear that foreigners may try to influence the vote or take over the country.

Although relief flights began to be allowed in on Sunday, the junta seized two aid shipments sent by the United Nations World Food Program on Friday. However the generals did accept emergency aid from India, China, Thailand and Indonesia immediately after the cyclone. These Asian countries are perceived as innocuous compared to the UN because of their close strategic relations with the junta. Their aid was handed over to Burmese authorities without monitoring their use. Supplies donated by Thailand had the names of generals pasted over them for televised propaganda programs broadcast on Burmese television.

In many areas monks from local monasteries have provided food and shelter and helped clear away trees and other debris. Whether that changes the political dynamic is a question. Monks led the massive protests against the government in September and many were imprisoned or disrobed. They are now returning to an influential role as providers of aid when the military so far has been unable to do so.

In an enraged editorial, the Irrawaddy, an exile magazine published in Thailand, called Burmese leader Than Shwe a “mentally deranged dictator, holding his people hostage at the end of a gun barrel, utterly unfit to rule a country. The cyclone has again unmasked the true colors of Than Shwe’s regime, which claims to have built a modern, developed nation. It now bears the responsibility for the catastrophe wrought upon the country by the cyclone, and it must be held accountable.”

Turning a deaf ear to local and international opposition, the junta’s proposed constitution is widely seen as undemocratic and only aimed at legitimizing and solidifying the military’s grip on power. Observers cite provisions in the proposed constitution that reserve 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military and for the president to hand over power to the military in a state of emergency.

A clause that bans the spouses of foreigners from holding government office is aimed at keeping opposition leader and Nobel Peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, from leadership since her late husband was British. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in 1990 general elections – the last time Burma saw any form of democracy – but was barred from taking power by the military.

The proposed constitution itself only became available to the general public to review in April. By Saturday most people still had not seen it had a chance to see the constitution, much less have a free debate over its contents.

No matter the preordained results of Saturday’s referendum, the reaction to the cyclone has exposed the ineffectiveness of the generals’ rule. While the state media shows generals in well-pressed uniforms handing out aid to bedraggled cyclone survivors, the reality according to witnesses is that there is very little government assistance in the affected areas.

The real showdown will be when the 47 townships affected by the cyclone go to the polls in two weeks. Burmese have become very adept at reading between the lines in the government’s propaganda and word of the government’s uncaring response will have spread by May 24. Many Burma watchers are speculate that those affected may overcome their fear and vote “no.”

A “yes” vote that shows approval for a government that has neglected its people in the aftermath of a natural disaster as devastating as Cyclone Nargis could hardly be considered credible. It would be very difficult to believe that the cyclone survivors would freely choose to live on the junta’s terms.