Cyclone blows cold on Myanmar's referendum plan

Bangkok/Yangon - Cyclone Nargis, which pounded central Myanmar over the weekend leaving at least 351 people dead and the country's largest city paralyzed, may force the ruling junta to rethink their plans to hold a referendum next Saturday.

The referendum on May 10 will decide the fate of Myanmar's new constitution, a document that promises to cement the military's dominant role in the country's politics following the next general election scheduled some time in 2010.

In any other country, the postponement of a national vote would be inevitable after such a devastating natural disaster, but Myanmar, also called Burma, has not obeyed international norms for decades.

The cyclone, which slammed into Myanmar's central coastal states Friday night packing 200 kilometres per hour winds, has left Yangon's fragile infrastructure in shambles and claimed hundreds of lives in the Irrawaddy Division, Myanmar's rice bowl.

Up to 100,000 may have been left homeless by the storm, many more are roofless and Yangon, a city of several million inhabitants, is likely to be without electricity for weeks.

"It's a catastrophe," said one western diplomat. "Almost all the electricity poles were blown down. It will take weeks to repair. I don't see how you can conduct a referendum under those conditions."

Given Myanmar's limited budget and poor past performance in disaster management, there is a high likelihood that millions of people will have more pressing matters on their minds than the referendum come Saturday.

But that may not stop Senior General Than Shwe, Myanmar's military supremo who heads the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) - as the ruling junta has styled itself - from pushing the referendum through.

It was Than Shwe who set the referendum date for May 10, and only Than Shwe can decide to postpone it.

"Than Shwe is very stubborn, and it's very important for him to hold the referendum by this date. He will not postpone it unless he sees no other option," predicted Win Min, a lecturer on Myanmar affairs at Chiang Mai University, in neighbouring Thailand.

Than Shwe chose the May 10 date because it was "an auspicious date" and because it has allowed little time for opponents to organize campaigns against the referendum, said Win Min.

Now Than Shwe will need to decide whether the stars have spoken against his divine plan.

"Many people are saying this (cyclone) is a bad omen for the regime, and punishment for their crackdown on Buddhist monks last September," said Win Min.

On September 26 to 27, Myanmar's junta unleashed its troops on hundreds of Buddhist monks who had led anti-government protests in Yangon, sending thugs to beat and round up the protectors of Myanmar's national religion.

The brutal onslaught, that left at least 31 dead, enraged Myanmar's predominantly Buddhist population against their rulers and drew harsh criticism from the international community.

In was partly in response to that growing pressure that Than Shwe in February announced plans to hold a referendum that will decide on the country's new constitution and ultimately pave the way for a general election in 2010. The constitution, however, holds little promise for true democracy in Myanmar, a country that has been ruled by the military since
1962. The referendum itself has been condemned by human rights groups for being neither free nor fair, but rather being held amid widespread repression, media censorship, bans on political gatherings, the lack of an independent referendum commission and courts to supervise the vote, and a pervasive climate of fear.

The military has made it clear that they want the constitution to be approved, and since they control the referendum process and vote-counting, its approval seems inevitable.

The new charter assures the military a dominant role in the future Myanmar by granting the military the right to appoint 110 members of the 440-seat lower house and 56 members of the 224-seat upper house.

Control of this 25 per cent of both houses would effectively bar amendments to the charter that might threaten the military's dominance, since for an amendment to pass, it would require more than 75-per-cent support.

Whether or not the military will risk pushing their constitution through on Saturday, despite the harsh warning from cyclone Nargis, remains to be seen.

"Whatever happens, one thing that has made the military very happy is that the cyclone has blown away all the satellite dishes on peoples' homes in Yangon, so now they will not be able to watch cable TV news on Myanmar anymore," joked Win Min. (dpa)

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