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.
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 pounded the Irrawaddy delta, leaving more than 65,000 people dead or missing. Nearly 2 million others were left homeless or in need of food, shelter and medicine.
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. The military has only a few dozen helicopters, most small and old. It also has about 15 transport planes, few of which are able to carry massive amounts of supplies.
Long lines formed in front of government centers, where minuscule rations of rice and oil were being distributed. Elsewhere, people clustered on roadsides hoping for handouts. The words "Help us!" were written in chalk on the side of one home.
"Please, don't wait too long," said Ma Thein Htwe, 49, who waited with dozens of other women and children at a monastery in Kungyangon for her ration of rice.
Ko Zaw Min, 27, said not enough aid was reaching his community. Each family was given just over a pound a day.
"I want to build my home where it used to stand, in the field over there," said the farmer, who lost his 9-year-old son and a 1-month-old baby in the disaster. "But I have nothing."
Despite international appeals to postpone the constitutional referendum, voting began Saturday in all but the hardest hit parts of the country.
As lines formed, state-run television continuously ran images of top generals including junta leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, handing out boxes of aid at elaborate ceremonies.
"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.
"It is not going to areas where it is most in need," he said in London.
It has been 18 years since the last poll, and 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.
Myanmar has been ruled by military regimes since 1962. The current junta seized power in 1988, throwing out the country's last constitution.
The referendum seeks public approval of a new one, which the generals say will be followed in 2010 by a general election. Both votes are elements of what the junta calls its "roadmap to democracy."
But 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 — elements critics say defy the junta's professed commitment to democracy.
It 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 election won by her National League for Democracy party.
Some 27 million of the country's 57 million people were eligible to vote, although balloting was delayed for two weeks in the areas hardest hit by the May 3 cyclone.
For many it was hard to think of anything but the storm that tore apart so many lives. State media say 23,335 people died and 37,019 are missing from Cyclone Nargis. International aid organizations say the death toll could climb to more than 100,000 as conditions worsen. Heavy rain forecast in the next week was certain to exacerbate the misery.
Despite obstacles put in place by the military junta, some aid was arriving. The United Nations has sent several planes and trucks loaded with relief supplies, even though the junta took over its first two air shipments.
Aid flown in Saturday on flights organized by the WFP was quickly released to the agency — described as "good news" by spokesman Marcus Prior in Bangkok, Thailand.
The military rulers also have agreed to let a U.S. cargo plane bring in supplies on Monday, but foreign disaster experts were still being barred entry.
The U.N. refugee agency said it sent its first aid convoy by land into Myanmar on Saturday and began airlifting 110 tons of shelter supplies from its warehouse in Dubai.
Two trucks carrying more than 20 tons of tents and plastic sheets for some 10,000 cyclone victims crossed into the country from northwestern Thailand, said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"This convoy marks a positive step in an aid effort so far marked by challenges and constraints," said Raymond Hall, UNHCR's representative in Thailand. "We hope it opens up a possible corridor to allow more international aid to reach the cyclone victims."
A total of 23 international agencies were providing aid to people in the devastated areas, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
But a large number of organizations still were awaiting government clearance for more aid shipments, staff and transport.
"It's a race against the clock," Byrs said. "If the humanitarian aid does not get into the country on a larger scale, there's the risk of a second catastrophe," she said, adding that people could die from hunger and diseases.
Health experts have warned there was a great risk of diarrhea and cholera spreading because of the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation. Children, including those orphaned by the storm, face some of the greatest risks.
"The fact that there are people we still haven't gotten to is very distressing to all of us. We don't know how many that is," Tim Costello, president of the aid agency World Vision-Australia, said by telephone from Myanmar's largest city, Yangon. "The people are all exposed to the elements, and they are very, very vulnerable."
In the badly hit town of Labutta, family members were forced to use rusty sewing needles to close wounds at a hospital where no doctors or supplies were visible. One man lay dying from a lack of care after his foot was cut off in the cyclone.
On the outskirts of Labutta, 12 people were crammed into one tent pitched on a rice field. They were the only survivors from the village of Pain Na Kon and had fruitlessly searched Labutta for family members.
"We are family now. We are from the same place. We are together," said U Nyo, one of the survivors, his eyes red from tears and fatigue. "We need food. There isn't enough space in the town so we decided to stay here."