By Aung Zaw, an exiled Burmese political activist and editor of the Irrawaddy news magazine, an independent monthly based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand (THE GUARDIAN, 12/05/08):
It is over a week since Cyclone Nargis brought devastation to Burma, and its people are in mourning – although there has been no official condolence from the ruling junta. Now, everyone is pointing the finger at Senior General Than Shwe, his ministers and army leaders – first, for failing to issue advanced warning of the cyclone to those living in the Irrawaddy delta region, and second, for responding so slowly to the devastation.
Most shocking, the regime stalled aid packages coming into the country and delayed issuing visas to international aid and medical workers. While the rest of the world has been eager to help, Burma’s generals are only interested in consolidating their power.
And so, only a week after tens of thousands were killed, while 1.5 million remain hungry and homeless, the regime went ahead with its planned referendum to approve a new constitution at the weekend. It is the first vote in the country since 1990, when the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory, which the military ignored. The regime insists that the new constitution will pave the way for democratic elections in two years’ time.
But critics and international observers have dismissed the referendum as nothing more than a political ruse to legitimise the military’s grip on power. They note that the proposed constitution reserves a hefty chunk of parliamentary seats for the army and junta supporters, and effectively bars opposition leaders – including Suu Kyi – from holding office.
On Saturday, exactly a week after the deadly storm, Than Shwe came out to vote accompanied by his wife – the couple had not been seen in public since the cyclone – defying the opinion of the international community as well as his own citizens. Clearly, the regime is manipulating a positive result. Many voters spoke of being handed ballot papers that had already been filled in with a tick, indicating approval of the draft constitution. They also complained that the referendum was not free and fair, saying they were watched closely by officials as they cast their ballots, and in some cases were advised how to vote.
A few days ago, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his concern about the welfare of the people of Burma and suggested that it would be more prudent to focus on relief efforts. Now, a population that has suffered under a dictatorship for decades must face both this natural disaster and Than Shwe’s scheme to prolong his rule.
The deeply superstitious Burmese people believe that the cyclone was divine intervention to disrupt the referendum and undermine the stability of the regime. Certainly, the heavens opened and the winds lashed the country – but the generals appear to have escaped. However, divine intervention or otherwise, the cyclone has changed the country’s political dynamics and disrupted the regime’s constitutional process. It has revealed Than Shwe and his regime’s true colours to the world.
The current calamity is unsustainable. Political unrest and growing calls for humanitarian intervention will continue to haunt Burma’s incompetent military leaders. It maybe wishful thinking to suggest that Than Shwe’s days are numbered, but it is a hope widely shared among the victims of cyclone. His regime will not remain in power forever but people are paying a high price. The Burmese do not want ballot papers but food, shelter and freedom from the tyrant.