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Myanmar calls new charter ratified after partial vote

Officials say 92% of ballots cast supported a constitution critics say is a sham meant to strengthen the regime.

May 16, 2008|From a Times Staff Writer

YANGON, MYANMAR — Myanmar's ruling generals announced Thursday that a new constitution viewed by critics as a pro-government sham had been overwhelming approved by voters.

The commission in charge of the Saturday referendum said 92.4% of voters approved the constitution, state-run media reported. The pro-democracy opposition says the new constitution will enshrine military rule.

Voting was postponed in the country's largest city, Yangon, and the rest of the country's south after Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit just days before the balloting.

Most residents of the storm-ravaged areas, where disease and widespread shortages of food, clean water and medical treatment threaten the lives of injured and weak survivors, are scheduled to cast their ballots May 24.

But the military regime, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, didn't wait for complete results before declaring that the constitution had been ratified. The announcement was made the day that the government raised the official death toll from the cyclone to 43,318, still far below estimates by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

News on the referendum results appeared to be greeted with quiet resignation in rain-soaked Yangon, also known as Rangoon.

Many of the city's 7 million people still don't have electricity and running water 13 days after the storm struck. The price of rice has shot up by 50%, the cost of fuel has more than doubled, and other basic needs are sapping meager savings.

Heavy rain fell in the region throughout Thursday, and foreign aid agencies, frustrated by the government's refusal to open the isolated country to a massive international relief effort, warn that the early monsoons increase the risk of another catastrophe.

The U.N. and European Union have sent officials to Yangon to try to persuade the military regime to allow foreign teams and equipment into Myanmar, also known as Burma, to assess needs and supervise the distribution of supplies.

But so far, they have met only lower ranking government ministers and officials in Yangon, not the top generals ensconced 200 miles to the north in their remote new capital in Pyinmana.

The U.N.'s humanitarian chief, John Holmes, is preparing to go to Myanmar, but like dozens of other international aid workers, he needs a visa. Holmes applied Wednesday to enter Myanmar aboard a U.N. World Food Program plane carrying supplies.

U.N. spokeswoman Michelle Montas said he hoped to go within the next five days, but had not yet received a visa, adding that "we expect he will get it."

U.N. officials are debating whether Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should also try to enter Myanmar to show the world's eagerness to help. But Myanmar's top leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, has not answered Ban's phone calls or letters since the cyclone struck.

Human rights activists say the referendum was rigged by the government, which has made criticism of the regime a criminal offense.

The generals say the 194-page constitution is a key step toward democracy and have promised multiparty elections in 2010.

But the new constitution bans pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for public office because she was married to a foreigner, British academic Michael Aris. He died in 1999. Many of her supporters also would be blocked from power because they have criminal records for opposing the regime.

There are at least 1,890 political prisoners in the country, including hundreds of people arrested after pro-democracy demonstrations last year, according to the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, based in neighboring Thailand.

Under the new constitution, the military will appoint one-fourth of the members in both houses of parliament, ensuring that it will have veto power over future constitutional changes. The military also will have a leading role in choosing the president and two vice presidents.

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Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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