- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 11, 2008

BANGKOK — Government-controlled television in Burma yesterday repeatedly showed footage of staged events, in which Burma’s military leaders handed out aid boxes stamped with the names of senior generals to emaciated cyclone victims.

One box bore the name of a rising official, Lt. Gen. Myint Swe, in bold letters.

A smaller label read: “Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand.”

The propaganda exercise, engineered by the ruling junta, came amid accusations by the international community that military leaders were focusing their time and manpower on illegitimate elections while hundreds of thousands of neglected storm survivors are threatened by starvation and disease.

“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.

The U.S. yesterday prepared to fly emergency provisions into the cyclone-ravaged commercial port of Rangoon on its first cargo flight, scheduled for tomorrow. But Washington was unable to get Burma’s approval to give the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) 10 Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) specialists entry visas for the flight, crushing hopes of a major U.S. airlift.

It was unclear who would handle the U.S. aid after it lands in Burma or if it would be seized by the junta. The United Nations has some relief workers on the ground who may be allowed to transport the goods to the worst-hit Irrawaddy River Delta.

Burma, a Texas-sized Southeast Asian nation also known as Myanmar, has said about 23,000 people perished and 42,000 disappeared when Cyclone Nargis hit on May 2-3.

The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon said the death toll could reach 100,000 because the regime has blocked most international relief efforts.

The U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) sent in two relief flights yesterday, “while discussions continue with the government of Myanmar on the distribution of the food that was flown in [Friday], and not released to WFP,” organization officials said.

Burmese officials seized the WFP’s aid after the flight landed and were intent on having troops distribute it without U.N. oversight — a possible violation of U.N. rules.

International aid workers were pessimistic after the regime’s indifference and blockades, and Burma’s refusal to give foreign relief specialists visas to escort deliveries.

A trickle of aid flights have arrived during the past few days from countries willing to let the regime handle distribution, including Bangladesh, China, India, Italy, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

The regime’s attempt to manipulate all incoming aid has fueled concern over possible theft and the junta’s inability or unwillingness to deliver aid to more than 1 million people stranded on the Irrawaddy Delta as it secured the country for yesterday’s elections.

Most broadcasts and state-controlled newspapers stressed the need for people to get out and vote for the country’s new constitution.

“I would like to urge all to lead an easy life in the new democratic nation after casting a ‘yes’ vote for the constitution in the referendum,” a commentary in the government-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper said Friday.

Polling stations closed at 4 p.m., but it was not clear when the results would be announced. The balloting has been postponed for two weeks in areas, including Rangoon, hardest hit by the cyclone.

The editor of a respected Burmese newsmagazine who had reporters stationed around the country told the Associated Press the information he received showed the vote was not completely free or fair.

“The essence of secrecy is totally lost in some of the polling booths,” said the editor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. 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.

Observers predicted a majority “yes” vote, because Burma does not allow free speech, political debate, campaigning or other norms of democracy. Vote counting was expected to be done by regime officials, unmonitored by any independent or public scrutiny.

Many Burmese despise the junta, but some were expected to vote for the constitution because they feared the balloting would not remain secret and people who voted “no” might be punished. Some Burmese defiantly painted the word “no” on some buildings and streets, though dissent was rare and muted.

About half of the country’s estimated 60 million people were believed to be eligible to vote, but Burma lacks detailed census statistics.

The constitution would ensure the military holds at least one-quarter of parliament’s upper and lower houses, plus a handful of the most powerful ministries. It also forbids political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because her late husband was British and her two sons are British, though she is a Burmese citizen.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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