Myanmar’s junta continues with referendum despite millions affected by cyclone

Myanmar’s junta continues with referendum

despite millions affected by cyclone

The Gazette,

part of the canada.com Network

Aileen McCabe, Asia Correspondent, Canwest News Service

BANGKOK — As if the junta’s grudging response to Cyclone Nargis isn’t mind boggling enough, Myanmar’s generals diverted manpower from the aid effort Saturday to oversee a referendum on a new constitution.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling booth during the national constitutional referendum in Hlegu, 48 kilometers north of Yangon, Myanmar, May 10, 2008.The xenophobic regime clearly felt getting the vote out in areas not affected by the cyclone was at least as important as getting clean water, food and shelter to the 1.5 to 2 million of its citizens the United Nations now estimates were “severely affected” by Nargis.

State media is reporting more than 60,000 people are dead or missing after a cyclone packing winds over 100-kph and a tidal wave 3.5-meters high struck last weekend. The senior US diplomat in the country predicted this week that, given the delays in dispatching aid, the death toll could easily reach 100,000.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling booth during the national constitutional referendum in Hlegu, 48 kilometers north of Yangon, Myanmar, May 10, 2008. Reuters

The UN’s Richard Horsey estimated Saturday that aid has only reached about half a million survivors so far. A week after tragedy struck, more than a million more people are still waiting for rescue.

Myanmar election officials give ballot papers to v...Myanmar cleared two more UN aid flights to land on Saturday and allowed three UN trucks carrying enough tents and material to shelter 10,000 people to cross from Mae Sot, Thailand. Unfortunately, the trucks will take at least two days to reach the country’s largest city, Yangon, formerly Rangoon. And that is still days by road away from the worst hit Irrawaddy Delta area.

India, which Myanmar considers a friend, also brought in a transport plane full of supplies as well as two shiploads of aid the ruling generals have allowed it to bring in. Thailand, too, delivered one planeload of relief supplies.

Voting in a nationwide referendum in Hlegu. Myanmar’s junta is voting on a new constitution, ignoring pleas to focus on delivering urgently-needed food supplies to 1.5 million cyclone victims at risk from disease and starvation. (AFP)

photoIndia and Thailand have both been satisfied with unloading their supplies at the airport and leaving them for the junta to distribute. The UN is balking at accepting this kind of an arrangement and threatened Friday to suspend relief fights when a shipment of its energy biscuits was impounded by the military. It quickly backed down, but it is still trying to negotiate an agreement that will ensure the world community’s aid goes to those who need it most. 

Humanitarian workers and disaster relief experts are still barred from the country, at least until Myanmar’s embassies re-open on Monday. There is some hope that once the referendum is over the generals might open the borders, but it is small, given the statement issued by the foreign ministry Friday, which bluntly said the country would accept help, but not helpers.

It means the UN and aid agencies are relying on the small network of local staff they have permanently stationed in Myanmar to do a distribution job it would ordinarily take an army of international workers to achieve.

Two envoys from Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej also travelled to the former Burma on Saturday, hoping to convince the junta to allow access to foreign relief teams. Samak intended to go himself, but the generals told him they were “too busy” to receive him.

Meanwhile, the international community is becoming increasingly concerned about the impact the delays are having on the spread of disease in the worst hit areas.

The World Health Organization issued an assessment saying “outbreaks of communicable diseases such as dengue and malaria are now a big concern.”

It has 20 teams, including 10 experts in communicable diseases, on standby in Thailand, awaiting permission to go to Myanmar.

UNICEF, which has managed to get some supplies in with the help of the Thai government, says it is “very concerned about the impact of bad water on the health of children” that have seen left stranded, even orphaned, by the cyclone.

It said that UNICEF health specialists estimate “20 per cent of children in the worst affected areas already have diarrhea and cases of malaria have also been reported.”

The few reporters and aid workers who have made it down to the Irrawaddy Delta continue to report heartbreaking scenes of hungry, homeless people who have lost everything and are now forced to wash and draw water from flooded plains where dead bodies are still floating.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Maxim Bernier offered Thursday to send the Disaster Assistance Response Team to the beleaguered nation to provide with humanitarian relief. In calling on the junta to grant visas to more aid workers, Bernier said the referendum should have been pushed back until the worst of the crisis is over.

“Given the widespread and devastating effects of Tropical Cyclone Nargis,” Bernier said, “Canada calls upon the Burmese government to focus on meeting the immediate needs of its people rather than pushing forward with the upcoming referendum on the Constitution.

“The window of opportunity to save lives and alleviate suffering is rapidly closing. We cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Saturday’s referendum vote was the first of any kind in Myanmar since 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the House of Commons made an honourary citizen of Canada last week, and her National League to Democracy swept to victory in an election the generals refused to honour. The junta leaders claim it will pave the way for democratic reforms, but most observers believe it will actually strengthen the hold of the military, which has ruled the poverty-stricken Southeast Asian nation since 1962.

In Thailand, Japan and Malaysia Saturday there were small demonstrations protesting the junta’s decision to go ahead with the referendum despite the crisis that is rocking Myanmar.

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