Myanmar's military government pushed ahead Saturday with a referendum on a controversial proposed constitution despite a devastating cyclone that killed tens of thousands.
The vote on the referendum began Saturday morning across most of the country, but was put off for two weeks in the areas hit hardest by Cyclone Nargis — including the country's biggest city, Yangon.
The disaster has overshadowed the vote, which even before the May 3 storm was considered by many a foregone conclusion because the rules are skewed in favor of the military junta that has ruled since 1962.
Some 27 million of the country's 57 million people are eligible to vote, although it remains unclear how many will have to cast their ballots on May 24 instead.
The new constitution 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 percent 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 honor the results of a 1990 general election won by her National League for Democracy party.
Anti-government groups and human rights organizations, which have criticized the charter as designed to perpetuate military rule, have bitterly accused the government of neglecting cyclone victims to advance its political agenda.
'A sham constitutional referendum'
There are estimates that more than 1 million people may have been affected by the cyclone, many of them losing their homes.
"Even as hundreds of thousands of its citizens struggle for basic shelter, food and health care, Myanmar's government has prioritized acceptance of the new constitution, a document that Amnesty International views as an effort to undermine respect for human rights and to entrench military rule and impunity," the London-based human rights group said Friday.
Seven Alliances, a coalition of organizations representing Myanmar ethnic and democracy groups in exile, called on the junta "to suspend the referendum nationwide and allow all international aid into the country immediately."
The junta has so far allowed in only material assistance, but not the large scale presence of foreign relief workers who have capabilities to cope with the disaster that Myanmar lacks.
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.
"Instead of putting all resources toward saving the lives of the victims, the military is concentrating on legalizing military rule in Burma forever through a sham constitutional referendum," said a joint statement from the All Burma Monks Alliance, the 88 Generation Students and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions.
'X' on ballots
Burma is the old name for Myanmar and is preferred by its pro-democracy movement.
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 symbol of opposition, and has been scrawled and spray-painted in public places in Myanmar's cities. Activists in Yangon are able get away with it under cover of darkness because the cyclone cut power in the city.
Generally, though, the mood among would-be voters is one of confusion and resignation — and at least a touch of cynicism.
Widespread rumors say the results have already been fixed to deliver an 84.6 percent vote in favor 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 Yangon's Chamber of Commerce who refused to give his name because he was afraid of being called in by the authorities.
Some feel that voting for the constitution may be desirable because the alternative is worse.
"I will vote yes for constitution because the authorities said that if we do not say yes, the military will stay in power for a long time," said a resident of the northeastern city of Taunggyi.
In Yangon, indifference to the vote is common.
"That is the least of my concerns. I wake up every morning planning where to get water and when to start queuing for gasoline," said Nyi Nyi, a 45-year-old office worker.
Khin Maung Than, a 45-year-old pedicab driver whose house and vehicle were crushed by a tree in the storm, said he was "preoccupied trying to put my life back together."
"My family is now staying at the monastery. I have no means to repair the house. And I have no means to earn a living as well. And I don't know how to feed my family of three young children," he said.