Referendum vote begins in Burma amid devastation

Voting on a referendum for a proposed new constitution has begun in Burma even as the country continues to struggle with devastation wreaked by a cyclone that left thousands dead and about one million homeless.

Voting on a referendum for a proposed new constitution has begun in Burma even as the country continues to struggle with devastation wreaked by a cyclone that left thousands dead and an estimated one million homeless.

The military government of Burma, also known as Myanmar, pushed ahead with the controversial referendum across most of the country, though residents in areas hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, including the largest city of Rangoon, get a two-week delay to cast their votes.

Around half of the 57 million people are eligible to vote, though it is unclear how many will cast their votes on May 24 instead.

Even before the May 3 storm ripped through the country, the vote was considered to skew in favour of the junta that has ruled more than four decades.

The constitution proposed in the referendum is expected to be followed by a general election in 2010.

Both votes are part of what the junta describes as a road map to democracy for the country, but critics say the proposed constitution is designed to perpetuate military rule.

Human rights organizations have also blasted the junta for holding the referendum while the country is still reeling from Saturday's cyclone.

The draft constitution guarantees 25 per cent of parliamentary seats to the military and allows the president to hand over all power to the military in a state of emergency.

It would also bar Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained leader of the country's pro-democracy movement, from public office.

Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party won the 1990 general election but the military refused to honour the results. 

Early turnout low

In the city of Hlegu, early turnout for the 130,000 eligible voters was light. There were no long lines and many people came to the polls in small groups.

No one at the polls would admit to voting against the proposed constitution.

"I haven't read the constitution but the government would not do anything inappropriate or bad for the country," said retired army soldier Nyo Aye, adding that he'd voted in support of the draft charter.

Aye Aye Mar, a 36-year-old housewife looked fearful when asked if she thought anyone would vote "No." She looked around, then whispered, "One vote of 'No' will not make a difference." Then she raised her voice, "I'm saying 'Yes' to the constitution."

Amnesty International criticized the Burmese government for prioritizing the acceptance of a constitution instead of focusing on the hundreds of thousands of its citizens struggling to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone.

Seven Alliances, a coalition of organizations representing Burmese ethnic and democracy groups in exile, called on the junta "to suspend the referendum nationwide and allow all international aid into the country immediately."

The junta has allowed only material assistance into the country so far, and not the large-scale presence of foreign relief workers able to cope with the disaster.

With files from the Associated Press