Voting began in Burma today as the military government pushed ahead with a referendum on a controversial proposed constitution despite the devastating cyclone that killed tens of thousands.
Balloting was taking place across most of the country but was put off for two weeks in the areas hit hardest by Cyclone Nargis a week ago – including the biggest city, Rangoon.
The disaster has overshadowed the vote, which even before the storm was considered by many a foregone conclusion because the rules are skewed in favour of the military junta that has ruled since 1962.
The United Nations is seeking about £95 million from donor nations to help the cyclone’s survivors.
UN officials said yesterday the pledges are needed to provide food, water purification tablets and other supplies for at least 1.5 million people over the next three months.
Officials have been criticised for hampering relief efforts, but Burmese ambassador to the UN Kyaw Tint Swe said his country “intends to cooperate with the international community to address this great challenge”. But, he said, the response “has to be orderly and systematic”.
John Holmes, the UN’s top humanitarian aid official, said nations had pledged £38 million so far towards the effort, including £5 million each from Britain and Japan.
UN officials have increasingly voiced frustration at the barriers that Burma’s ruling junta have imposed to providing supplies and aid workers.
In Atlanta, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said his staff were negotiating with officials in Burma to break the gridlock, although he said leaders of the military junta have “regrettably” not yet made direct contact with him.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the US welcomed the go-ahead to land an American military C-130 in the country on Monday. The breakthrough came after days of waiting on the US side.
The donations being collected by the UN are to be used by 10 UN agencies and nine non-governmental organisations to provide support for Burma.
An estimated one million people of its 51 million population have been made homeless by the storm.
More than 60,000 people are dead or missing and entire villages are submerged in the Irrawaddy delta after Saturday’s cyclone, but international aid organisations say the death toll could climb to more than 100,000 as humanitarian conditions worsen.
The UN World Food Programme announced it had suspended relief aid shipments yesterday, then quickly reversed that decision. But two shipments carrying emergency biscuits and health kits were still tied up at the airport, officials said.
The new constitution being voted on today is supposed to be followed in 2010 by a general election.
Both votes are elements of a “road map to democracy” drawn up by the junta. The draft constitution guarantees 25% of parliamentary seats to the military and allows the president to hand over all power to the military in a state of emergency.
Its rules would also bar Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement, from public office. The military refused to honour the results of a 1990 general election won by her National League for Democracy party.
Anti-government groups and human rights organisations, which have criticised the charter as designed to perpetuate military rule, have bitterly accused the government of neglecting cyclone victims to advance its political agenda.
Seven Alliances, a coalition of organisations representing Burmese ethnic and democracy groups in exile, called on the junta “to suspend the referendum nationwide and allow all international aid into the country immediately”.
Groups that led last year’s pro-democracy demonstrations also issued protests while carrying on with their campaign urging people to reject the proposed constitution.
The groups urged all people opposed to the junta to register their sentiments by putting an “X” on their ballots, signifying a rejection of the draft charter.
The “X” has become a symbol of opposition, and has been scrawled and spray-painted in public places in Burma’s cities. Activists in Rangoon are able get away with it under cover of darkness because the cyclone cut power in the city.
Widespread rumours say the results of the ballot have already been fixed to deliver an 84.6% vote in favour of the constitution.
“I cannot be bothered to vote, knowing the outcome of the referendum, which is going to be an overwhelming ’yes’,” said a member of Rangoon’s Chamber of Commerce.