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May 10, 2008

Voting goes ahead amidst cyclone woes


Opposition NLD members wearing T-shirts bearing the word ‘No’ in front of their party headquarters in Yangon



Polling stations opened Saturday in parts of cyclone-hit Myanmar, as the military regime asked voters to approve a new constitution just one week after tens of thousands of people died in the storm, reported AFP.

The military delayed the vote for two weeks in the areas hardest-hit by Cyclone Nargis, including in the main city and former capital of Yangon. But the ruling generals pushed ahead with the referendum in other parts of the country, with polling stations visited by AFP open by 6:15 am (2345 GMT).

The referendum is the first vote here since 1990, when detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League to Democracy (NLD) to a landslide victory in elections, a result the junta has never recognised.

The regime says the constitution will clear the way for democratic elections in two years, but the NLD says it will entrench military rule and has urged voters to reject the charter.

The junta has ignored the NLD's calls to delay the balloting and focus instead on helping the 1.5 million people still in desperate need of aid in the wake of the cyclone.

The junta's plan to go ahead with the vote while restricting the delivery of disaster aid from the United Nations and other relief agencies has drawn widespread criticism and amazement.

On Friday, almost a week after the cyclone, Myanmar continued to block all but a trickle of foreign aid, barring large-scale deliveries by the World Food Program and other United Nations relief agencies.

The constitution is the centerpiece of the junta's policies for the future, but most outside analysts see little of democracy in it.

"If you believe in gnomes, trolls and elves, you can believe in this democratic process in Myanmar," the chief human rights investigator for the United Nations, Paulo S?rgio Pinheiro, said late last year.

Fourteen years in the making, it is formulated to keep power in the hands of military officers, even if they change to civilian clothes. As the generals see it, a constitution endorsed by a popular vote will give them formal legitimacy 20 years after the current junta seized power at a time of bloody massacre.

It is the junta's answer to outside critics who demand democratic rule in Myanmar - part of a seven-step "road map to democracy" that is meant to lead to a multiparty election in 2011.

Aung Naing Oo, an exiled commentator in Bangkok, said he saw a personal motive among the generals who are pushing forward with the constitution: survival. Its guarantee of military supremacy in a civilian government, and an amnesty for past official misdeeds, may be their savior from retribution if they are ever forced from office.

"This is life or death for Than Shwe," Aung Naing Oo said, referring to the leader of the junta. "He needs military people - his people - in key places so he won't have to answer for the crimes he has committed."

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