Amnesty International has issued a statement criticizing the Burmese government's intention to proceed with a referendum for a new constitution Saturday instead of concentrating on providing relief for victims of Cyclone Nargis.  Also, the human rights group describes the new constitution as an effort to undermine respect for human rights and to entrench military rule.  From London, Tendai Maphosa has more.

Rather than focusing on the hundreds of thousands of its citizens' struggle for basic shelter, food and health care, the Amnesty International statement charges, Burma's government is prioritizing acceptance of the new constitution.

Amnesty also says the referendum for the draft constitution was being held in an environment where individuals cannot freely express themselves. The rights group's spokesman Benjamin Zawacki told VOA that soon after the referendum was announced in February, the government passed a law that outlaws any campaigning against the draft constitution.

"Essentially what the military government was saying through that law is you either support the constitution or you keep quiet but you do not have a political right to express the view that you don't want the constitution to pass," he said.

Zawacki added that those who dared campaign against the constitution were attacked and had their campaign materials seized

Amnesty International expressed concern that rather than attempting to introduce the rule of law and respect for human rights to Burma, the proposed constitution process seeks to perpetuate and legitimize the government's continuing human rights abuses and ensure no punishment for both past and future violations. 

Zawacki also says that the process that brought about the draft constitution was not inclusive. The process, he says, started three years after the 1990 general elections, which the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) was on course to win.

"By 1995 the NLD and other parties realized that they were essentially being sidelined, their concerns and their objectives were not being taken into account by the government and they opted to cease participating and once they tried to get back into the process they were not allowed back in," he added.

The Burmese government has postponed voting for the constitution in the regions hardest hit by the cyclone to May 24. VOA's attempts to get a comment from the Burmese embassy in London were unsuccessful.