Myanmar's junta holds tough in face of world criticism

9th May 2008, Comments 0 comments

The reigning party continues to keep international aid workers at bay and refuses to call off a weekend referendum.

9 May 2008

YANGON - Myanmar's military rulers - under fire from the world community for hampering relief efforts for their cyclone-battered country and refusing to call off a weekend referendum - showed no signs Friday of bowing to international pressure.

Despite a personal appeal by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to focus on its "national tragedy" in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which has left about 23,000 people dead and 42,000 missing, and reconsider plans to hold the referendum on a new constitution, the junta has thus far refused to do so.

"The secretary general, deeply concerned about the welfare of the people of Myanmar at this time of national tragedy, has taken note of the government's decision to proceed with the constitutional referendum on 10 May," a UN statement issued Thursday said.

It added that Ban believes it would be "prudent" for the regime to turn its attention instead to its emergency response.

On Tuesday, Myanmar confirmed it would hold its referendum to endorse a pro-military constitution although the vote was postponed until 24 May in 47 of the worst-hit townships.

It was not the first time that Senior General Than Shwe, the country's military supremo, has ignored a personal appeal from a UN secretary general.

The regime in 2006 rejected an appeal by former UN leader Kofi Annan to release Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Suu Kyi, Myanmar's foremost opposition leader, remains confined to her Yangon home, where she has spent 12 of the past 18 years.

Than Shwe, 75, who heads the State Peace and Development Council, as the junta has styled itself, set the referendum date and is determined to make it happen, even if half the country's population is still reeling from a natural disaster, observers said.

"He planned it so he does not want to change it, partly for astrological reasons and partly because he may be worried that things are going to get worse if he waits," said Win Min, a lecturer on Myanmar affairs at Chiang Mai University in neighbouring Thailand.

Than Shwe is also considered to be the main opposition in granting international aid workers permission to facilitate emergency relief operations.

The regime's delays in granting visas to UN disaster relief experts this week has drawn a storm of criticisms from the international community, which has warned that any delays would result in an escalating death toll in Myanmar.

An estimated 1.5 million people there are in need of food, water and medicine, particularly in the Irrawaddy Delta region, which has thus far received only a trickle of aid.

But Myanmar's generals were still stalling on granting visas to foreign experts seeking to enter the country to facilitate the delivery of more than USD 32 million of emergency aid.

The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a government mouthpiece, published an article Friday that essentially said Myanmar welcomed foreign aid for the cyclone's victims but would handle the distribution itself.

"Currently, Myanmar is receiving emergency relief provisions and is making strenuous efforts to transport these provisions without delay by its own labour to the affected areas," the newspaper said.

The article noted that authorities had turned back aid workers and reporters who had tried to enter the country on Wednesday with a cargo of emergency goods.

Political observers in Myanmar said they believe Than Shwe does not want a lot of international aid workers in the country on Saturday for the referendum.

The referendum was expected to endorse a new constitution that would essentially cement the military's dominant role in all future governments. The process has been characterised by intimidation of voters and a high likelihood of vote-rigging.

Even in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the military has continued to crack down on opponents to the constitution. Seven opposition politicians were arrested Thursday for distributing pamphlets on the referendum, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

"The military authorities are too concerned with maintaining their grip on power when really now is the time to set politics aside," said Ko Bo Kyi, the association's joint secretary. "We urge the regime to postpone the referendum across the whole country and focus attention on helping the cyclone victims."

[dpa / ANP / Expatica]

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