YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's military rulers held a referendum Saturday aimed at solidifying their hold on power while brazenly turning cyclone relief efforts into a propaganda campaign. In some cases, generals' names were scribbled onto boxes of foreign aid before being distributed, according to Mark Farmaner.
Human rights organizations and dissident groups have bitterly accused the junta of neglecting disaster victims in going ahead with the vote, which seeks public approval of a new constitution.
The referendum came just one week after Cyclone Nargis left more than 60,000 people dead or missing. The United Nations estimates that at least 1.5-million people have been severely affected by the May 3 storm.
Aye Aye Mar, a 36-year-old homemaker, looked frightened when asked if she thought anyone would vote against the referendum.
"One vote of 'No' will not make a difference," she whispered, her eyes darting around to see if anyone was watching. Then she raised her voice to declare, "I'm saying 'Yes' to the constitution."
Though international aid has started to trickle in — with two more planes organized by the U.N. World Food Program landing at Yangon's airport Saturday — almost all foreign relief workers have been barred entry into the isolated nation. The junta says it wants to hand out all donated supplies on its own.
But with roads blocked and bridges submerged, reaching isolated areas in the hard hit delta has been made all but impossible.
"We have already seen regional commanders putting their names on the side of aid shipments from Asia, saying this was a gift from them and then distributing it in their region," said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, which campaigns for human rights and democracy in the country.