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Myanmar approves new constitution while it reels

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Yahoo news / AP

Myanmar approves new constitution while it reels

Myanmar’s junta announced Thursday that a pro-military constitution has won overwhelming support in a referendum, which was held despite widespread criticism and in the midst of a national tragedy — a devastating cyclone that the Red Cross says may have killed more than 125,000 people.

State radio said the draft constitution, which critics dismissed as a sham document designed to entrench the military’s rule, was approved by 92.4 percent of the 22 million eligible voters. It put voter turnout at more than 99 percent.

Voting was postponed until May 24 in the Irrawaddy delta and Yangon areas, which were worst hit by Cyclone Nargis. But state radio said the results of the late balloting could not mathematically reverse the constitution’s approval.

Myanmar’s government issued a revised casualty toll Wednesday night, saying 38,491 were known dead and 27,838 were missing.

But the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said its estimate put the number of dead between 68,833 and 127,990.

Even though the figures seemed precise, spokesman Matthew Cochrane said they were not based on body counts, but were only estimate designed to provide Red Cross donors and partner organizations with an idea of the numbers being discussed within the aid community.

U.N. officials have said there could be more than 100,000 dead in the May 2-3 cyclone.

With up to 2.5 million people in urgent need of food, water and shelter, aid agencies were preparing or moving in a wide-range of relief supplies including material for temporary shelters, rice, drinking water, kitchen utensils and medicines, including 2,000 anti-snake bite kits.

The World Health Organization said an increase in snake bites was feared in coming days. U.N. agencies and other voluntary groups have been able to reach only 270,000 of the affected people.

But instead of accepting foreign help freely, the government continued to issue only a few visas to foreign aid experts, and all but shut them out of the hardest-hit areas.

The regime insists it can handle the disaster on its own — a stance that appears to stem not from its abilities but its deep suspicion of most foreigners, who have frequently criticized its human rights abuses and crackdown on democracy activists.

Critics see the May 9 referendum as another attempt by the junta to stifle democracy. In a country ruled by the feared military since 1962, few would have dared to vote against the constitution. Human rights groups dismissed the vote as a mockery, saying government officials were told to mark the ballots with “Yes” ticks for those who failed to show up at polling stations by 1 p.m.

The junta says the new constitution will lead to a general election in 2010. But it guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and allows the president to hand over all power to the military in a state of emergency — elements critics say contradict the junta’s professed commitment to democracy.

The junta’s iron-fisted rule has been clearly demonstrated in the way it has dealt with international humanitarian agencies offering their services in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

The junta has limited international staff to Yangon, and has also used police to keep foreigners out of the delta. It did grant approval for a Thai medical team to visit the delta as early as Friday.

Amanda Pitt of the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs said that unless the disaster response was improved, more lives would be lost. “It is clearly inadequate, and we do not want to see a second wave of deaths as a result of that not being scaled up,” she said.

Meanwhile, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said that countries delivering aid should insist on monitoring to ensure aid reaches the cyclone victims most in need and to prevent the military government from seizing it.

It said it has confirmed an Associated Press report this week that the junta had seized high-protein biscuits supplied by the international community and distributed low-quality, locally produced substitutes to the people.

“Simply dropping aid off at (the) airport under the control of the abusive and ill-equipped … military will not necessarily help victims of the cyclone,” it said.

The junta also said Wednesday it would accept 160 relief workers from India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand, though it was not clear if anyone but the Thais would be permitted to go to the delta.

On Thursday, the U.N. said that an emergency rapid assessment team from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, would also head into Myanmar within 24 hours to assess the most critical needs.

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press.;_ylt=AlRx5FbIleO8FhaO9p4l6qVvaA8F

Yahoo Full Coverage: Myanmar

Written by Lwin Aung Soe

May 15, 2008 at 8:12 am

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