Full, but empty

May 10 was supposed to be a big day for Burma’s military, the day that it legitimated itself through the ballot box. On that day, millions of eligible voters were supposed to come and freely express their approval of a constitution that would guarantee the army a quarter of seats in parliament and reaffirm its role as the leading state agency in a “discipline-flourishing” democracy, with a constitution of the generals, by the generals, for the generals.

That was the plan. In reality, the military’s legitimacy has been decided upon by something else entirely. Cyclone Nargis not only obliterated hundreds of coastal villages and with them prospects for a trouble-free poll, but also any chance that the regime can now or at any time in the future obtain the credibility at home or abroad that the referendum was intended to secure for it. Never mind the widespread claims of vote rigging, bullying and miscounting. That the referendum was held at all, that almost two weeks on cyclone victims have received no help and are dying in makeshift huts of cholera, that rivers and fields are still full of bloated corpses and that officials are selling or hoarding relief supplies delivered from well-meaning donors abroad all speak to the regime’s barbarity and its absolute want of legitimacy.

The junta’s store of legitimacy, to the extent that it existed at all, was already greatly diminished by the events of September 2007. The putting down of the latest popular uprising was in some respects even more shocking than the crushing of protests in 1988, albeit less bloody, because this time around Buddhist monks were in the forefront of rallies. Not only do the majority of people in Burma venerate the monks but the generals too, in the absence of any singular unifying ideology of old, have used them as a central plank in the platform upon which they have stood for the last two decades. By pressing on since then and presenting themselves as pious leaders on a righteous path, the army leaders have instead consistently reminded the public of their sins rather than of any advertised virtues.

The other main element in the propaganda, leaving aside the state stability humbug, has been national development. New roads, bridges, dams, weirs, universities, schools, hospitals and crops are the stuff from which the military has sought to build a legacy. People can travel more easily, grow more plants more often, study harder and get better medical treatment than ever before. Or so the story goes, thanks to the government’s benevolence. It is a story that was never true, but in the aftermath of the cyclone has been shown to be so horribly wrong that even the most skeptical of citizens has been shocked that the regime would stoop to the point of blocking international aid from starving villagers and stealing from the small amounts that it has allowed in. Even the most cynical of observers has been alarmed that boxes of supplies from Thailand have had the names of senior officers plastered over the top of the kingdom’s labels, only to be taken back from dazed ostensible recipients anyhow after the television cameras had been turned off. And that is just a little of what has happened in the past week and a half, a week and a half in which the ruling clique has really shown its true colours, their unsurpassed ugliness.

The ballot boxes from May 10, and those from the remaining 47 townships where the vote was postponed to May 24, will be full yet empty: full of little papers that will one way or another be taken as an endorsement of the army’s continued rule, but empty of substance and devoid of meaning. The referendum was not a sham, as so many commentators and political opponents have said so many times in recent weeks. It just wasn’t anything at all. Whatever it was supposed to be it was not; whatever it was supposed to decide has been decided elsewhere: a great cost for absolutely nothing.

Source: Constitution referendum amid cyclone exposes illegitimacy of Burma junta


5 responses to “Full, but empty

  1. Cyclone survivors told to make room for voters
    Nem Davies, Wednesday, 14 May 2008 20:46, Mizzima

    Cyclone survivors in a Rangoon suburb have been ordered out of a temporary shelter so that it can be used as a polling station on May 24.

    The 57 people whose homes were destroyed are staying in a community hall (dama joun) in San-Yeik-Nyein Quarter, South Dagon Township, Rangoon Division. The hall is normally used for religious purposes and ceremonies such as weddings.

    But the survivors were told to move out four days before the constitutional referendum, which was postponed in areas hard hit by Cyclone Nargis.

    “May 20th is the last day to move out of the place, because they want to use the building as a ballot station,” said a person taking care of the survivors.

    Local authorities informed the person five days ago when they brought food donations for the homeless. “But they did not say anything about where to move to. We have to wait for some days because it is still many days until the referendum,” the person said.

    Despite widespread damage from Cyclone Nargis, the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and Township Quarter level authorities have been collecting “advance votes” from some residents in South Dagon. The advance voting began the day after the cyclone.

    The door-to-door advance polling was originally intended as a convenience for the elderly and those planning to travel out of the city. But now everyone is asked to cast a ballot ahead of the official poll date, residents said.

    Eligible voters have to cast ballots whether they want to or not, yet they have no choice but to say ‘yes.’ “It’s not secret. You have to give your ballot to the authorities,” a Dagon Township resident said.

    USDA members Saw Naing, Tin Maung Than, Nyi Kyaw, Myint Than and Aung Myint Htay are collecting votes in this way, residents said.

    “The authorities are only thinking about holding on to power and they do not think about helping people those who are in trouble and mentally disturbed by the cyclone,” said a resident from Sanchaung Township in Rangoon Division.

    Many Rangoon residents are frustrated at the junta’s priorities. “I would not vote for them,” said a resident from Sanchaung Township. “I could not support them when we do not have food at home.”

    The government-owned newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, reported Wednesday that 34,273 people were killed, 1,403 people were injured and 27,838 people were missing after the cyclone, which struck May 2 and 3. But aid workers and UN agencies put the death toll at more than 100,000.

    The junta went ahead with a nationwide referendum to approve a draft constitution on May 10, but delayed voting in 47 townships in Rangoon and the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta regions.

    Critics say the charter will perpetuate military power, but the junta says it is part of a transition to a “disciplined democracy.”

  2. Burma approves draft constitution by 92.4 percent
    Mizzima News, Thursday, 15 May 2008 15:24

    New Delhi – Burma’s draft constitution was overwhelmingly approved by voters, state radio announced Thursday.

    The announcement read out by Chief Justice Aung Toe, head of the Referendum Holding Committee, said 92.4 percent, or 20,786,596 voters out of the more than 22 million voters, cast ballots in favor of the draft constitution in a referendum held on May 10.

    Aung Toe said 1.3 million votes were cast against the draft constitution, while 334,584 ballots were canceled. He put the voter turnout at 99.07 percent.

    The results announced were compiled from voting in 278 out of the 325 townships across the country. It excluded 47 townships in the Irrawaddy Delta and Rangoon division, as polling in these regions was postponed until May 24 because of the cyclone.

    Critics say the draft constitution is the junta’s plan to cement its rule, while authorities say it is part of a long transition to a civilian government. The charter would allow the military to control 25 percent of all legislative seats. The junta has said it would hold multi-party elections in 2010.

    Critics say the atmosphere under which the polling took place was far from free and fair. And they blasted the government for going ahead with the referendum in most of the country despite widespread devastation from Cyclone Nargis, which struck May 2 and 3.

    A voter in Rangoon division said the referendum results does not reflect the peoples desires as the ruling junta intimidated people to vote in favor of the constitution.

    “The result only proves that they [the junta] are doing whatever they want. It is illegitimate,” said the voter.

  3. Pathetic UN

  4. Myanmar ratifies and promulgates Constitution

    NAY PYI TAW, 29 May-The State Peace and Development Council of the Union of Myanmar issued Announcement No. 7/2008 today.

    The full text of the announcement is as follows:-

    The Union of Myanmar The State Peace and Development Council Announcement No. 7/2008 10th Waning Day of Kason, 1370 ME (29th May 2008 )

    Announcement of Promulgation of State Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar

    1. The Commission for Holding the Referendum of the Union of Myanmar, regarding the ratification of draft Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, reported that the National Referendums to seek approval of the people were held on 10th and 24th May 2008 successfully; 98.12 per cent of 27,288,827 eligible voters all over the country cast votes and of them 92.48 per cent supported the draft Constitution in accordance with law.

    2. Hence, it is hereby announced that the State Constitution of the Union of Myanmar has been ratified and promulgated by the National Referendum.

    Sd/Than Shwe Senior General Chairman State Peace and Development Council

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