- Burma - military junta
Nearly 4,000 people were killed and thousands were missing in Burmese regions devastated by Cyclone Nargis, state television reported on Monday, a dramatic increase in the toll from Saturday's storm.
"The confirmed number is 3,934 dead, 41 injured and 2,879 missing within the Yangon and Irrawaddy divisions," MRTV reported, as aid agencies said hundreds of thousands of people were without shelter or drinking water in the military-ruled Southeast Asian country.
Earlier in the day, while the death toll was estimated at 351, Burma’s ruling junta had announced that its constitutional referendum for Saturday May 10 would be maintained.
Referendum at stake
On Monday, the country’s official newspaper “New Light of Myanmar” confirmed that the referendum, the first of its kind after 18 years, would take place as planned.
The decision angered a large part of the Burmese population. “We hardly have anything to eat, and they want to send us to vote!” exclaimed an irate Burmese citizen, affected by the cyclone, to FRANCE 24’s correspondent Cyril Payen.
Payen qualifies the junta’s decision as “surrealist” at a time when “half the population is completely cut off from the world.” Furthermore, the junta is reported to have warned the population against abstention. According to Payen, the military said that “there should be at least one vote per home”, failing which the head of the family could face six months in prison.
With a wind speed between 190 and 240 km/h, the cyclone hit Burma’s south-western coast before spreading eastward. The most severe damages were caused at the Irrawaddy coastline. Burma’s largest city Rangoon was also affected, and authorities were forced to close the international airport.
International organisations have started to put together a plan to aid the cyclone’s survivors. According to Payen, the ruling junta is reported to be holding discussions on the exact nature of the aid.
The opposition denounces the referendum
The election comes seven months after the violent repression of Buddhist monks who protested against the regime. It aims to introduce a fundamental law in Burma, a country under military control since 1962.
Officially, the referendum is expected to open the way to “multi-party elections” in Burma by 2010, a first step to transferring power to civilians. However, the Burmese opposition, used to the ruling junta’s political scheming, has called on the population to reject the proposed law, which it claims is designed to restrict Burma’s political scene.
The opposition argues its case by specifying that a quarter of the seats in the two houses of Burma’s future parliament will be designated by the military. Furthermore, the three main ministers – Interior, Defence and Foreign Affairs – are to be military commanders.
The anti-democratic nature of the referendum is also enhanced by the fact that it includes a clause forbidding 62-year-old Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Ky to preside the Union. The official reason being that Suu Kyi was married to a foreigner - British national Michael Aris, who died of cancer in 1999.