Myanmar voters do their 'patriotic duty'

"To approve the state constitution is the national duty of the entire people today," the paper said.

Myanmar voters do their 'patriotic duty'

With explicit orders to vote "yes" to an army-drafted constitution, nervous voters turned out on Saturday for the first exercise in democracy in military-ruled Myanmar in nearly two decades.

After weeks of relentless exhortations to the country's 53 million people to do their "patriotic duty" and approve the charter, state television ran a final Burmese-style "get the vote out" propaganda blitz.

"Let's go voting" and "Come along for voting", five jaunty actresses sang to a boppy disco beat on army-controlled MRTV.

The message was more explicit on the front page of the New Light of Myanmar, the main mouthpiece of a military that has ruled the impoverished southeast Asian nation with an iron fist for the last 46 years.

"To approve the state constitution is the national duty of the entire people today," the paper said.

Despite some dismay at the generals' decision to proceed with the vote only a week after the death and destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis, the message appeared to have hit home.

Of 20 people interviewed near polling stations in Hlegu, 50 km (30 miles) northeast of the former capital, Yangon, only two admitted voting against the charter, which cements the army's grip on power, despite being part of its "roadmap to democracy".

"I don't belong to any political party, but I voted no," one man said in a whisper after a nervous glance over his shoulder to check he could not be heard.

The charter gives the army one in four seats in parliament, control of key ministries and the right to suspend the constitution at will -- conditions that have attracted fierce criticism from Western governments.

Voting in the cyclone-hit city of Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta, where as many as 100,000 people are feared dead and 1.5 million homeless, has been postponed for two weeks.

JUST FOLLOWING ORDERS

Unsurprisingly in a country where everybody is terrified of the government, some of the small numbers of voters who turned up said they were simply following orders.

"I voted yes. It was what I was asked to do," 57-year-old U Kyaing told Reuters outside a brick primary school that doubled as a polling station in Hlegu.

Inside, voters were able to mark their ballots in secret behind screens, before folding the pieces of paper and dropping them into a wooden box placed in the middle of the room.

Most looked uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the process -- understandable given that the last election was in 1990 and the generals chose to ignore the result when the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won 80 percent of the seats.

One elderly lady thought all she had to do was put her unmarked slip in the ballot box.

The NLD, whose iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for the last five years, spearheaded a largely underground "no" campaign but stood no chance against the regime's determination to avoid another upset.

"For us former soldiers, the military is our father, the military is our mother, so we had already decided to vote yes," Aung Oo, a 42-year-old member of the Hlegu's War Veterans Association, said. "But they had asked us."

Reuters
Last Mod: 10 Mayıs 2008, 14:54
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