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May 30, 2008

Junta claims 92% of voters endorse new charter

Myanmar announced on Thursday that its new constitution had been "confirmed and enacted" after a referendum held earlier this month amid the devastation of Cyclone Nargis.

State television, reading a statement by military leader Than Shwe, said that 92.48 percent of voters had endorsed the charter.

Voter turnout was 98.12 percent, it said, despite more than one million storm survivors still languishing without foreign aid after the storm ripped through the southwest on May 2 and 3, leaving 133,000 people dead or missing.

"The nationwide referendum confirmed and enacted the constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar," the statement said.

Earlier, Myanmar had said the constitution would only take effect in two years, once a new parliament convenes following planned elections.

Myanmar ignored international calls to focus on cyclone relief work and delay the referendum and ploughed ahead with the polls on May 10 and 24.

Nearly four weeks after Cyclone Nargis pummelled large swathes of Myanmar, foreign aid has still only reached 40 percent of the 2.4 million needy survivors, the UN says.

Myanmar had largely barred foreign aid workers from the southwest Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of the cyclone.

Last Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had received assurances that Myanmar would grant access to all foreign relief workers, and aid agencies are slowly moving into cyclone-ravaged delta.

Richard Horsey, spokesman for the UN's emergency relief arm, said the situation was "tentatively positive", with international UN staff able to move into the delta after giving the ruling military 48 hours' notice.

"We haven't had any problems with visas for the last week to 10 days and yesterday (Wednesday) we were issued with the last of the 45 visas we were awaiting," Horsey said.

Several international aid workers have reported receiving travel approval for the delta in the last week, including six from the UN children's fund UNICEF, five from World Vision and two from Save the Children.

Other groups were still waiting for Myanmar to live up to its promises.

"We want to move now. We have to move now. This amount of time after a disaster we should be providing water. It's absolutely critical," said John Sparrow, Bangkok-based spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"Imagine the stress of a family with children living without proper shelter, without food and without medical care," he said, adding that most of their 30 foreign staff in Yangon were waiting for permission to go to the delta.

"The longer it goes on, the greater the suffering of the people."

And despite an apparent thawing in its stance on foreign aid, the military launched a tirade against opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, accusing the National League for Democracy of stoking unrest among storm survivors.

"The NLD is attempting to incite the outrage of the victims and problems, and to make the public outrage go into riots," the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said in an editorial on Thursday.

The NLD, which won 1990 elections but was never allowed to govern, had urged people to vote against the new constitution.

The military has said the charter will pave the way for elections in two years, but detained Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters say the charter will only entrench military rule.

Aung San Suu Kyi, whose house arrest was extended for one more year on Tuesday, will be barred from running for office under the new constitution, which reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament for the military.

The generals will also have broad powers to declare a state of emergency and seize direct control of the government.

Meanwhile, volunteers returning from cyclone-hit areas said tragic scenes remained, with dead bodies still rotting in the fields, and villagers relying on survival skills in the absence of outside help.

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