Burma holds criticized referendum as cyclone victims await aid

Burma held a referendum Saturday that likely will solidify the ruling junta's hold on power, even as it appeared overwhelmed by a devastating cyclone that killed tens of thousands of people.

Burma held a referendum Saturday that likely will solidify the ruling junta's hold on power, even as it appeared overwhelmed by a devastating cyclone that killed tens of thousands of people.

Human rights organizations and anti-government groups have accused the government of Burma of neglecting cyclone victims to advance its political agenda, and have criticized the charter as designed to perpetuate military rule.

State TV on Saturday broadcast a video of two women singing a pop-style song with the lyrics: "Let's go vote .... with sincere thoughts for happy days."

Witnesses told local news agency reporters that the referendum appeared to go heavily in favour of the government's proposed new constitution, which entrenches the military's central role in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

In the weeks before the vote, there were arrests and jail terms handed out to people who urged a vote against the referendum.

But in a country where the last election was held 18 years ago, many people had no idea how to vote. Some asked each other or officials, "Where do I go?" or "What do I do?" as they walked into curtained booths to cast their ballots.

Some 27 million of the country's 57 million people were eligible to vote, although balloting was delayed for two weeks in the areas hardest hit by the May 3 cyclone.

State media says 23,335 people died and 37,019 are missing from Cyclone Nargis, and international aid organizations say the death toll could climb to more than 100,000.

Agencies critical of vote

The UN estimates that 1.5 million to two million people have been severely affected. United Nations aid flights resumed Saturday after a brief suspension earlier in the week over the Burmese authorities refusal to grant visas and landing rights to foreign agencies.

Reports from Rangoon, the country's largest city, said the military regime was distributing aid delivered by UN and other relief flights but plastering the names of top generals onto boxes and crates of aid supplied by international agencies.

The junta has so far allowed in only material assistance and has rejected the large-scale presence of foreign relief workers who have capabilities that Myanmar lacks to cope with the disaster.  UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has led international demands for more access to victims of the storm.

"Even as hundreds of thousands of its citizens struggle for basic shelter, food and health care, Myanmar's government has prioritized acceptance of the new constitution," Amnesty International said.

Speaking from neighbouring Thailand, CBC's Michel Cormier said aid agencies were holding out hope that the end of voting in Burma might clear the way for their workers and flights to reach the beleaguered people of the Irrawaddy River delta, where the worst of the cyclone's effects were felt.

"A lot of aid organizations think this [vote] partly explains the problem [with visas]. The government didn't want international attention during the voting and they hope that come Monday, there'll be more chance of getting into the country," Cormier says.

He adds that there are fears of more bad weather hampering aid efforts in the coming days, "if not a cyclone, then torrential rains which will just make things worse for people who have been waiting for aid for many days now."

A spokesman for one of the lead aid agencies in Burma said time was running out.

Tim Costello of World Vision said there were serious doubts about the Burmese junta's ability to deliver aid to the worst affected people in time.

"The pipeline simply isn't broad enough or deep enough," Costello told CBC news.

With files from the Associated Press