Survivors of the cyclone that tore through Myanmar are being asked to vote today on a new constitution that the government calls an essential step toward democracy, but which critics contend will merely entrench military rule.
The referendum was scheduled before Tropical Cyclone Nargis slammed into the country's southern delta a week ago, killing about 23,000 people, according to officials, and perhaps tens of thousands more. The vote will go forward as planned in all but the worst-hit townships and Yangon, the principal city of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
In holding the referendum, Myanmar's military rulers are dismissing a chorus of voices that have urged a postponement until aid can be dispensed to the millions of people scrambling for food, clean water and shelter.
United Nations officials are warning that without a massive international intervention, the scale of the disaster risks spawning disease that could lead to more deaths.
The generals continued Friday to restrict foreign aid entering the country. The government said it would accept aid from abroad but no aid workers or the equipment to deliver it. A few aid flights have landed in Yangon, carrying supplies such as high-energy biscuits, but international officials say the help falls drastically short of what is needed. The generals have deployed just seven helicopters to distribute the foreign aid, they said.
"If aid doesn't start to go in right now, there is a significant risk of a second wave of deaths from disease," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangkok.
Aid agencies remained deeply uncomfortable with the government's demand that relief supplies be just dropped off on the tarmac. The U.N. World Food Program announced Friday that it was suspending aid flights, saying the government had confiscated deliveries from two cargo planes. The agency later said it would resume flights today.
But the Myanmar government continued to balk at granting visas for foreign aid workers. The Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, where dozens of aid agencies have congregated hoping to establish a humanitarian relief bridge, was closed for a holiday Friday. The embassy said it would re-open Monday.
Observers said the Burmese military is chronically suspicious of Western motives, and is reluctant to have foreign humanitarian workers disperse across the country. Such images would clash with the military's self-appointed role as the guardian of the nation, they said.
The desire to get the constitution approved in a referendum makes the generals even less likely to accept any foreign presence.
"The regime is reluctant to let foreign aid workers in because it is in the middle of stage-managing the referendum that will allow it to cement military rule," said Deborah Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, an umbrella group of human rights and pro-democracy organizations.
The regime has reason to be cautious: It was soundly defeated by opposition parties when it conducted an election in 1990. The generals annulled the results and jailed many of the victors.
Observers contend that the generals want to minimize the risk of a repeat loss. Opposition forces and human rights watchers have chronicled dozens of cases of activists who were campaigning for a "No" vote on the constitution being jailed or beaten, as well as several instances of public sector workers being forced to vote "Yes" in advance polls under the supervision of authorities. The generals say a constitution must be in place before elections scheduled for 2010 can be held, a key demand of Myanmar's foreign critics.
The previous constitution was suspended in 1988 after a failed pro-democracy uprising. Attempts to draft a new one began in 1993 but stalled before gaining momentum after 2004 when, observers say, an aging coterie of generals sought to ensconce the military's place at the heart of the political system.
The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, refused to participate in producing the draft constitution because its leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.
Critics have heaped scorn on several provisions in the 194-page document. They take issue with articles setting aside one-quarter of the seats in parliament to be appointed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. That in effect gives the military a veto over any amendments, since constitutional change would require the consent of more than 75% of lawmakers.
Critics also point out that the draft constitution would empower the military leadership to "restrict or suspend" rights under emergency conditions. And the law governing the referendum process denies clerics the right to vote, a provision many say is aimed at disenfranchising Buddhist monks, who have emerged as some of the regime's staunchest foes.
"This constitution marks no change in the way the country is run now, but merely seeks to place an air of legal legitimacy over it," says Benjamin Zawacki, the Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International. "This constitution will not protect the human rights of citizens, and the international community should not accept it as a positive step."
But Thailand, India and China, close neighbors and trading partners, have heralded the prospect of a new constitution. Their ties to the regime has led Western diplomats to urge them to lean on the generals to accept Western help.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said he would travel to Myanmar on Sunday, but canceled those plans just hours later, saying there was no point because the generals had reaffirmed their opposition to letting in foreign aid workers.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the generals' behavior "appalling" in a radio interview.
"The obscenity of this is that the people who pay the price are the poor Burmese people," he said.
Horsey, of the United Nations, said, "We can put two and two together and assume that they are delaying because of the referendum, but no one really knows why the government is being so slow on this. . . . The key point is not why it's happening, but that their attitude has to change."