BURMA’S ruling generals said yesterday there was a “massive turnout” in their national referendum, held despite pleas to devote their resources to saving more than a million cyclone victims.
Even as aid groups warned the official toll of 60,000 dead or missing could rise unless survivors get help immediately, the regime went ahead with Saturday’s vote to ratify a new constitution.
The referendum sought public approval of a constitution, which the junta says will be followed in 2010 by a general election. Both votes are elements of what the junta calls its “roadmap to democracy”.
But the proposed 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.
The referendum was postponed in the worst affected parts of Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta, but people in many peripheral areas were asked to vote.
“For many of these people this referendum is bizarre, it is illogical. They are surviving by a very thin thread. Why do they have to worry about politics?” said Debbie Stothard, head of the south-east Asian human rights group ALTSEAN-Burma.
Polling stations were set up near makeshift camps for the homeless, while much of the international community urged the generals to focus on relief.
But in a story that made no mention of the cyclone tragedy, the New Light of Burma newspaper said some places had to extend voting hours to let everyone cast their ballot.
“The referendum was held successfully with massive turnout of the citizens,” it said.
State television yesterday continued to show pictures of the generals casting their ballots in a vote critics said was intended to strengthen their grip on power.
“The question that has to be asked is whether people turned out voluntarily or not, and whether they got to vote according to their minds,” said Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch in neighbouring Thailand.
“In any authoritarian country, they try to legitimise themselves through the ballot box,” he said.
The poll came amid stark warnings for the estimated 1.5 million people at grave risk following the disaster.
Many are still without food, clean water, shelter and medical supplies, and the regime’s insistence that it is “not ready” to let in foreign aid workers has infuriated the world.
Many organisations have expressed hope there will be a change of heart by the junta.
The generals said Saturday’s vote was the next step in their “road map” to democracy, and it would set the stage for national elections within two years.
The last national election was won by democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in a landslide. The result was never recognised and she has been under house arrest for much of the time ever since.
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