HLEGU, Burma – A proposed military-backed constitution in Burma appears to have won overwhelming approval in a referendum Saturday in which there was visible intimidation of voters, witnesses said.
Witnesses and local officials who watched the local counting of ballots said the vote appeared to average 80 percent to 90 percent in favor of the draft charter. The ruling junta's critics consider the proposed constitution unfair and undemocratic.
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Final official results of the referendum will not be announced until after late voting on May 24 in areas badly hit by recent Cyclone Nargis.
Witnesses said they saw cases of intimidation of voters at various polling stations around the country.
The referendum sought public approval of a draft constitution, which the generals say will be followed in 2010 by general elections. Both votes are elements of what the junta calls a "roadmap to democracy."
However, the proposed constitution guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and allows the president to hand over all power to the military in a state of emergency. The country is known also known as Myanmar, renamed by the ruling junta.
Its provisions also would bar Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained leader of the country's pro-democracy movement, from public office. The military refused to honor the results of the 1990 general elections won by her National League for Democracy party.
The fear of the military, which has ruled since 1962, is so great that few people were expected to mark "X" — which stands for "no" to the constitution — on their ballot, making the outcome a foregone conclusion. Widespread rumors had said the results were already fixed to deliver an 84.6 percent vote in favor of the charter.
A voting official who supervised two booths at a town in the country's Irrawaddy Delta region — some parts of which were still voting despite the devastation wrought by the cyclone — said the vote in favor was 83 percent and 95 percent, respectively. He asked not to be further identified for fear of getting into trouble.
The editor of a respected Burmese newsmagazine who had reporters stationed around the country said the information he received showed the vote was not completely free and fair.
"The essence of secrecy is totally lost in some of the polling booths," said the editor, who also asked for anonymity.
He said irregular practices seen by his reporters included officials telling voters, "Don't forget to put the tick, the right mark," as they got ready to cast their ballots.
Voting officials also would sometimes pull aside the curtains protecting the privacy of the voting booths, in addition to sometimes asking them to affix their fingerprints on the ballot papers.
Other journalists witnessed voters clutching three or four national registration cards, which they exchanged for an equal number of ballots, a violation of voting rules.
The referendum was carried out despite the crisis caused by May 3's Cyclone Nargis, which wreaked havoc in the country's heartland, including the biggest city Yangon, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving a greater number missing.
Ahead of the vote, state TV broadcast a video showing two women singing a pop-style song with the lyrics: "Let's go vote .... with sincere thoughts for happy days."
But in a country where the last election was held 18 years ago — with the results rejected by the junta — many people had no idea how to vote.
Some asked each other or officials, "Where do I go?" or "What do I do?" as they walked into curtained booths to cast their ballots.
Aye Aye Mar, a 36-year-old housewife, looked frightened when asked if she thought anyone would vote "no."
After her eyes darted around to see if anyone was watching, she whispered, "One vote of 'no' will not make a difference." Then she raised her voice. "I'm saying 'yes' to the constitution."
Min Lwin, 40, made it clear he did not believe his vote counted.
"What choice do I have?" he said, before quickly walking away.
Polling stations closed at 4 p.m., though voting was extended slightly where lines of people were still waiting.
Nyo Aye, a 65-year-old retired soldier, said he marked "yes" on his ballot at a polling station in Hlegu, a town 30 miles north of Yangon.
"I haven't read the constitution, but the government would not do anything inappropriate or bad for the country," he said.
Some 27 million of Burma's 57 million people were eligible to vote.
Anti-government groups and human rights organizations, which say the charter is designed to perpetuate military rule, have bitterly accused the government of neglecting cyclone victims to advance its political agenda by pushing through the referendum.
There are estimates that more than 1 million people may have been affected by the cyclone, with many of them losing their homes.
The junta has so far allowed in only material assistance and has rejected the large-scale presence of foreign relief workers who have capabilities which Burma lacks to cope with the disaster.
Groups that led last year's pro-democracy demonstrations urged people to mark their ballots with an "X," which has become a symbol of opposition. Activists, under the cover of darkness, have scrawled and spray-painted Xs in public places in Burma's cities.