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Referendum underway in cyclone-hit Burma

Latest update : 2008-05-10

Burma's military junta pushed ahead with a constitutional referendum on Saturday, just one week after thousands of people died in a deadly cyclone. Voting started in all but the worst-affected areas. FRANCE 24's Cyril Payen reports.

Burma's military regime pushed ahead with  a constitutional referendum on Saturday, despite being battered by tragedy from the recent cyclone. The vote is postponed until May 24 only in the worst affected areas, including in the main city and former capital of Rangoon.


FRANCE 24’s correspondent at the Thai-Burmese border Cyril Payen said voting started early and the military junta urged people to vote.
The junta claims that the new constitution will pave the way for “multi-party elections” by 2010.
On Friday, the government campaign for a Yes vote continued. “From 4 o’clock this morning, loudspeakers began to blast patriotic songs and slogans, repeating the word ‘Meyo, meyo’, which means referendum in Burmese,” Payen said.
“The approval of the State’s Constitution is a national obligation for the whole population”, a headline read on the front page of Friday’s New Light of Myanmar.
Witnesses told at the Thai-Burmese border  told Payen that the Burmese are “frustrated and furious” that the authorities are ignoring the plight of the homeless while devoting resources to the vote.
"With this situation, it is not the appropriate time to hold the referendum," NLD spokesman Nyan Win told AFP. The party led by opponent Aung San Suu Kyi said the junta should delay the vote on a document that will merely enshrine military rule.


UN resumes aid flights


Burma's ambassador to the UN said Friday that his country would accept aid "from any quarter"  and that the military junta does intend to cooperate with the international community.


"We urgently need medical supplies, food, clothing, electricity generators and material for emergency shelter as well as financial assistance," UN Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe said.


The World Food Programme of the United Nations (WFP) has decided to resume its aid flights into Burma after announcing it would halt flights due to the junta's lack of cooperation.


“The restrictions imposed on us are unacceptable,” Chris Kaye, director of the WFP in Burma, had told the AFP, referring to the military junta’s clampdown after the deadly cyclone. “Two flights arrived in Rangoon this morning, containing food that has not even been unloaded,” said Kaye, though he did not explain why the WFP was unable to step in.


But earlier on Friday, Burma’s doors remained closed to foreign aid workers and journalists on Friday, despite international pressure to allow experts into the isolated nation where disease and starvation are stalking cyclone survivors.


Payen saw “dozens of lorries” loaded with supplies and humanitarian workers waiting at Burmese border checkpoints. “For the moment, nothing is going through,” he said.
"Currently, Myanmar has prioritised receiving emergency relief provisions and is making strenuous efforts to transport those provisions without delay by its own labours to the affected areas," Burma’s foreign minister Nyan Win announced in the government-controlled newspaper New Light of Myanmar on Friday.

"As such, Myanmar is not ready to receive search and rescue teams as well as media teams from foreign countries," he added.
The statement from Burma’s military rulers came as the international community is struggling to provide relief to the victims of the cyclone.

France sends a rescue ship

France has decided to send a marine boat to the area, containing 1,500 tonnes of food and supplies.  

The vessel will set sail from India by Sunday at the latest, with the aim of arriving at its destination on Monday or Tuesday, according to French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner. On board the ship are helicopters, medical teams, and hospital beds.


“The problem is to know where (these items) will arrive and how they are to be distributed,” said Mr Kouchner. “Ideally, of course, we would pass them on to NGOs.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon tried to contact junta leader Gen. Than Shwe to negotiate with him. US State Secretary Condoleezza Rice talked to her Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi to request diplomatic back-up from China, Burma’s neighbour and ally.
The UN said that only two experts have been allowed into the country so far, while 40 visa applications were still pending on Thursday. The Red Cross, for its part, managed to land a planeload of emergency shelters in Rangoon late on Thursday night and was hoping to fly more supplies and manpower into Burma on Friday.
Death toll could top 100,000
The latest official figures state that cyclone Nargis killed nearly 23,000 people in southern Burma last week-end and left 42,000 missing.
However, a US diplomat in Rangoon and a FRANCE 24 source close to the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party estimated that the death toll could top 100,000.
The United Nations estimates more than one million people have been left homeless by the disaster and, as each hour passes without clean water and food, they are at ever greater risk of starvation and disease.
As international aid fails to reach the victims, smuggling takes over. “Thai lorries are being unloaded into boats,” Payen said. “On the other side of the border, other lorries are being loaded and driven to Rangoon.” The price of supplies has skyrocketed on the black market, especially that of mortar and rice.

Date created : 2008-05-10