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Burma Holds Constitutional Referendum Despite Cyclone Disaster

Burma's military government has gone ahead with a constitutional referendum as its people wait for assistance in the wake of a cyclone disaster a week ago that left at least 62,000 people dead or missing. Critics have labeled the referendum a sham. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia Bureau in Bangkok.

The referendum got under way only in some parts of the country Saturday. Earlier this week, the government postponed the voting until May 24 in areas that were hardest hit by the cyclone.

With diplomats and aid agencies estimating more than one-million people severely affected by the storm and surge, analysts expected a low turnout. Burma's military rulers allowed no outside observers or foreign media, making it impossible to verify the number of people who voted Saturday.

Several people interviewed inside Burma say they were more concerned with repairing their homes and finding food and water after the storm, and some said they had no plans to vote.

Outside Burma, exiled dissidents urged their countrymen to vote against the referendum, which they say is illegitimate. Saw David Thakabaw is a member of the National Council of the Union Burma, an exile group in the Thai city of Mae Sot on the border with Burma.

"On the whole, we see that this is a fraudulent constitution which is not democratic, which is just to prolong the rule of the military dictatorship in Burma," he said.

The Burmese junta says the new constitution is a step in what the generals say is a roadmap to democracy. The constitution calls for multi-party elections in 2010 that will supposedly end the military's control of the government, which it has had since 1962.

But critics believe the generals have no intention of releasing power. The new constitution guarantees the military 25 percent control of the parliament and full power to veto. The constitutional convention at which the 200-page document was drafted excluded members of the leading opposition group, the National League for Democracy.

Critics note the constitution bans Burmese nationals with foreign spouses or children to hold political posts. Observers say the provision appears to be aimed at preventing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi - the widow of a British national and member of the NLD - from running for office. The nobel peace laureate has been under house arrest for most of the past 18 years. Her party won a majority of seats in parliament in 1990, but the military government never allowed it to form a government.

The United States and other members of the international community have called the referendum a sham and urged the government to call it off, especially as the country struggles to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone.

On Saturday, people contacted inside Burma indicated anger has been building against the military leadership over what many say has been its slow response to the cyclone disaster. Witnesses say thousands in the hard-hit Irawaddy Delta region are without food and other supplies a week after the disaster as the government continues to deny entry to foreign relief workers who want to go in and help distribute humanitarian aid that is trickling into the country from around the world.

The military leadership has been willing to accept aid, but has insisted it - not foreign relief workers - will be the one to distribute it.

The United Nations is calling for $187 million to help the victims. The U.N.'s World Food Program resumed its airlift of emergency food rations, which it had stopped, after Burmese authorities impounded shipments at the airport in the main city, Rangoon, on Friday.