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May 24, 2008

Junta goes ahead with referendum
as cyclone victims await aid

As the United Nations and international donors prepare for Sunday’s (May 25) aid pledging meeting in Yangon, the military junta held charter referendum in cyclone-hit regions, including the former capital.

The referendum on a new constitution, which the ruling generals claim was overwhelmingly approved in a first round of voting, started at 6:00 am (2330 GMT) across the main city of Yangon and the southern Irrawaddy Delta, where entire villages were washed away by Cyclone Nargis three weeks ago.

About five million people are eligible to cast ballots on Saturday, but their votes will have no effect on the outcome, after the military announced a 92.4 percent in the first round held on May 10 in regions spared by the storm.

In Yangon, voters have complained of intimidation, saying that military officers forced them to cast advance ballots, and to tick their papers while officials watched, reported AFP.

Meanwhile, disaster relief officials said there was "no time to lose" to help Myanmar's cyclone survivors after the secretive military government promised the United Nations it would allow in more aid workers, reported Reuters.

The rice-growing Delta and the former capital were hit by the vicious storm in which nearly 134,000 people were left dead or missing. The plebiscite on the army-drafted constitution was held in the rest of the country on May 10 with a 92.4 percent approval after voters were repeatedly told by authorities to vote "Yes".

"We have no more time to lose, so it's imperative that the Myanmar authorities immediately provide the international community with the practical details of the agreement," European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel said.

Junta supremo Than Shwe gave an assurance to visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday to allow in aid experts "of all nationalities" after weeks of restrictions in the delta.

However it rejected offers of US, French and British Navy ships delivering supplies, UN officials said.

Ban's mission to meet Senior General Than Shwe in his isolated new capital of Naypyidaw, 250 miles (390 km) north of Yangon was seen as a breakthrough, but aid groups were waiting for details on how the agreement would work.

The UN chief himself said he hoped that the deal "can produce results quickly. Implementation is the key."

Myanmar’s state-run TV showed officials from donor groups and diplomats of the UN and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) touring delta towns on Friday in preparation for a pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday. Myanmar has said it needs more than $11 billion in pledges.

Ban, who was going to China on Saturday to show support for victims of last week's earthquake that killed 55,000 people, would attend the joint UN-Asean conference in Myanmar, officials said.

More on Myanmar

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