Page last updated at 18:03 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 19:03 UK

Vote trumps storm for Burma leaders

By Jonathan Head
South East Asia correspondent, BBC News

Senior General Than Shwe, 27/03
There is very little chance of Than Shwe losing the referendum
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of Burma's response to Cyclone Nargis is its insistence that the referendum on a new constitution will go ahead as scheduled on 10 May, except in areas immediately affected by the disaster.

Even at the height of the disaster the state broadcaster has devoted much of its airtime to cheerful entertainment programmes urging people to vote in favour of the new charter.

The military is reported to have commandeered large numbers of vehicles for use during the referendum, and in towns unaffected by the cyclone, like Mandalay, trucks have been driving continuously through the streets, blaring out the government's pro-referendum message.

Residents contacted by the BBC have expressed their disgust that this is happening when so many are in such distress in the Irrawaddy delta.

It is a measure of the ruling military council's determination that it is ploughing on even in the face of the worst natural disaster in Burma's recorded history.

Unchallenged power

There are reports from within the military that senior general Than Shwe personally over-rode requests from his officers to divert army resources to help the cyclone victims, in a country with nearly 500,000 soldiers, and where more than 40 % of the government budget goes to the military.

Those few activists brave enough to campaign for a no vote have been jailed or beaten up by pro-government thugs

He was more concerned about maintaining security for the referendum.

Why this extraordinary intransigence, this refusal to respond to pleas for greater co-operation with the international community?

Reading the minds of the top generals, who decide pretty much everything in Burma, is pure guesswork. We know they are superstitious men, of limited education, and minimal exposure to the outside world.

They have lived entirely inside an army that wields unchallenged power over civilians, and which sees itself as endlessly fighting enemies bent on destroying the unity of the country.

These are the same soldiers who decided to seal Burma off from the world 46 years ago, and who retain deep suspicion of all foreigners.

A boy carries a can of water in Bogalay, in the Irrawaddy region
Tens of thousands of people are homeless and vulnerable to disease

But they also crave legitimacy. Ever since the bloody upheavals of 1988 Burma has been living without a constitution, its military rulers technically illegitimate.

They made a huge miscalculation holding the 1990 election, which was resoundingly won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

After annulling the results, they set about preparing a far more carefully-controlled process to legitimise their rule. The constitution, which is the subject of this referendum, is the end result of that process.

It began back in 1993, with the formation of an assembly meant to draw up guidelines for the new constitution. That was suspended after delegates from the NLD walked out in 1996, complaining the assembly was being manipulated by the military.

It did not re-convene until 2004. By then the delegates were mostly hand-picked, and locked in an isolated complex to carry out their deliberations.

The constitution they produced was, unsurprisingly, condemned by the government's many critics.

It enshrined the military's dominant role in politics, immunising the men in green from prosecution, giving them a quarter of the seats in parliament, and guaranteeing that the president would be a military man.

Burma's Prime Minister Thein Sein (L) meets cyclone-affected people in Rangoon
Burma's leaders are reluctant to allow foreign aid teams into the country

Few Burmese have been able to read it. The charter only went on sale a month before the referendum, at a price most Burmese cannot afford.

Criticising the referendum is a crime punishable by three years in jail. Those few activists brave enough to campaign for a no vote have been jailed or beaten up by pro-government thugs.

Civil servants have been pushed to vote ahead of the referendum, and put under enormous pressure to vote yes.

There are no independent monitors, and the final tally will only be announced in the military's citadel Nay Pyi Daw, giving ample opportunity to manipulate the result.

So there is very little chance Than Shwe can lose this referendum, even if large numbers of Burmese use it to express their anger against the government. It has been widely dismissed as a sham outside Burma.

But it seems to matter a great deal to the generals, opening the way to what they call a "discipline-flourishing democracy".

There must also be some Burmese who think, however objectionable and undemocratic the new charter may be, it may at least dilute the misrule of the military.

At the age of 75, Than Shwe is in poor health, and said to be worried about what will happen to his cronies and family after he's gone. He may hope that the formalisation of the armed forces' dominant role in the constitution will protect them.

Isolated as he is in Nay Pyi Taw, his self-styled "Abode of Kings" capital, he may simply not have grasped the scale of disaster, and the certain inability of his soldiers to deal with it.

In the rigidly hierarchical army, even generals who do grasp this may not dare to confront him with the truth.

In his mind the referendum probably looms larger than the fate of one or two million survivors eking out a desperate existence in the Irrawaddy delta.

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