Opinion: Burma′s Dictatorship in the Hot Seat | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 06.05.2008
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Opinion: Burma's Dictatorship in the Hot Seat

The full extent of the disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis in Burma remains unclear. But one thing is apparent: the regime is unwilling to delay its planned referendum on the constitution, says DW's Tobias Grote-Beverborg.

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Once again Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is making headlines. But not due to the referendum on the constitution which is meant to decide the country's political future and is scheduled for Saturday, May 10. Instead, the country ruled by a military dictatorship is in the news because of the natural disaster, whose full effect remains unknown.

Cyclone Nargis left behind a massive swathe of destruction in the country's south, above all. At least 15,000 people have been killed, according to official figures, while hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless and are in need of food, water and medication. The people are in such desperate straits that even the hard-hearted military regime must recognize that it can't cope with the catastrophe without foreign aid.

Tobias Grote-Beverborg

Tobias Grote-Beverborg

It's still unclear under what conditions the regime is accepting the aid. It is, however, clear that the cyclone has upset the dictatorship's plans. The planned referendum on the constitution was meant to ensure a continuation of military rule and it was supposed to be passed in the manner typical of a dictatorship, tacitly and closed off from the rest of the world.

In the limelight

But now the eyes of the world are on Burma and foreign aid workers may end up as unwelcome election observers. The junta hopes to avoid that by holding the vote as soon as possible -- that is, keeping it on Saturday. It's only allowing postponement of the vote in the regions hardest hit by the cyclone. The junta has once more shown how cynically calculating it is, seeing as in terms of logistics alone, the dimensions of the catastrophe make an orderly referendum impossible.

How long the regime can keep this farce going also depends on the conditions under which aid -- and aid workers -- is allowed into the country. The military leaders may of course hope they can rely on their neighbors; India and China have already promised comprehensive aid measures. And neither will meddle in Burma's "internal affairs," just as they haven't in the past.

Hopes of an Aceh scenario

However, as the number of victims increases and the need for aid for the survivors becomes ever more urgent, the junta cannot afford to reject further aid from abroad. The huge contingent of foreign aid workers who became a presence in Aceh, Indonesia, after the tsunami catastrophe nearly four years ago led to an end to the bloody civil war there. Parallels to the situation in Myanmar come to mind.

Discontent is already growing among the Burmese due to the military's apparent failings. For one, people weren't warned sufficiently or far enough in advance about the extent of the approaching cyclone. And now, national aid measures are moving sluggishly.

The referendum desperately needs to be postponed. One can only hope the referendum on the constitution takes place at a later date with international observers and that there will be truly free and fair elections in Myanmar. If that were the case, the catastrophe -- however cynical this may sound -- would also have done good.

Tobias Grote-Beverborg is the managing editor of Asia programs at Deutsche Welle (ncy).

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