Copyrighted material


by Moe Yu May

on Burma cyclone

(IPS) RANGOON -- With days to go before Burma votes on its new constitution, the military government's message to the voters is getting blunt -- openly calling for a ‘yes' vote to confirm the charter in Saturday's referendum.

The junta that rules this Southeast Asian country had earlier refused a United Nations' proposal to send independent observers. It also forbade any activity against the referendum as well as ‘Vote No' rallies.

Subsequently, junta officials have been trying to influence voters to say ‘yes' to the constitution through just about every single channel available. ‘Vote Yes' billboards are placed in public areas around the former capital, Rangoon. Television episodes around the referendum, featuring celebrities, are shown on state-owned TV.

"I will vote ‘no' because I'm sick of watching their instructions on TV to vote ‘yes,'" remarked Min Min, a voter in his 20s. Messages in bold headlines appear in state-mouthpiece newspapers every day, urging citizens to ratify the constitution in a vote that the Burmese government has said will take place in most areas, despite the devastation of the May 3 cyclone in which more than 15,000 people are reported to have died.

The voting has been moved to May 25 in the cyclone-devastated areas, especially in the Irrawady Delta and Rangoon.

In recent months, groups that support the junta, ranging from women's associations to army veterans' groups, have been travelling to rural villages to persuade people to vote ‘yes.'

Every day, state-owned TV features instructions on how to ratify the charter, and shows footage of pro-yes demonstrations. Those like Yoe Kyaw, a member of the township referendum commission in the western part of Burma, believe the referendum would be free and fair. "You can look at the referendum law. It is clearly mentioned there that there should be secret voting, counting in front of independent observers, transmission of the results and so on," he said.

After serving as a civil servant for 30 years and retiring in his sixties, Yoe Kyaw was elected this year to be on the township referendum commission.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. Under continued international pressure the military government announced, a few years ago, a road map to democracy that included the drafting of a new constitution.

This new charter, to replace the 1974 one, is supposed to lead to multi-party-elections in 2010, but skeptics abound. The last balloting in 1990 was won by the opposition National League of Democracy, led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but the military did not recognize the results of that vote.

Meantime, government servants and soldiers, along with their families, have received clear instructions from their superiors to support the constitution. Their polling places will be separate from the civilian voting areas. "We were instructed to give only a favorable vote," said a 41-year-old university teacher. "The voting place has been set up in the university campus. How can we vote secretly while we are monitored by pro-junta groups?"

At first, he thought he would vote in the place where he lives. But he realized later that he has to cast his vote in areas inside the university campus designated for university staff. In the weeks ahead of the vote, some residents raised questions about the integrity of the voters list. "It's strange! My father, who passed away in 2005, was in the list of voters," said Ma Oo, a 51-year-old resident. She has since sent a verbal complaint to a member of township referendum commission.

But the case of 63-year-old horse cart driver, San Kyaw Thar, is the reverse. "I wondered why I wasn't in the voters' list. My wife, my daughters and even my sons-in-law are in the list."

A mother and child care group had approached his daughters to vote ‘yes' on May 10, he explains. He adds that six other family members who are eligible to vote have also been encouraged by the same association to vote for the constitution. "If I get a chance, I'll vote ‘no' this time. I voted for Aung San Suu Kyi's party in the 1990 election," recalled San Kyaw Thar.

The May 10 vote is being pushed through as part of the military government's seven-step road map to democracy. It has pursued this process despite mounting international pressure after the September 2007 crackdown on the monk-led protests.

Attention will be focused on how free and fair the vote can really be in the country, as critics and exiled groups say the charter would not lead to significant political change without an end to military rule.

But the member of the township referendum commission, Yoe Kyaw, said: "I think it's better to have a constitution. Ruling with the constitution is better than without one."

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Albion Monitor   May 7, 2008   (

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