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Daily Archives: May 11, 2008

Myanmar holds vote despite cyclone devastation


by Moe Moe Yu*

Myanmar held a national referendum yesterday despite warnings that more people would die unless the government focussed on delivering emergency aid for survivors of last week's cyclone.

In surreal scenes, voting booths were erected close to makeshift camps for the homeless, and the country's military regime continued to hold up tonnes of urgent relief supplies at the airport.
The junta, deeply suspicious of the outside world, has refused to let in foreign experts who specialise in getting aid to disaster victims, and said that only the government would be allowed to distribute emergency supplies.
But the United Nations said that even the aid itself was being held up by the regime, strangled by customs and red-tape as the country went ahead with a vote whose only goal, critics say, is to cement the regime's hold on power.
"It's a race against time," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the emergency relief arm of the United Nations.
He said only one-quarter of the neediest victims of Cyclone Nargis had received any kind of aid one week after the tragedy, which left 60,000 people dead or missing and as many as two million more short of food, water and supplies.
Some aid has been distributed, but more people could die of disease or starvation unless they get help soon. At least one planeload of food is stuck at the airport, not yet cleared for release.
"We're dealing with lots of bureaucracy, we're dealing with a lot of red tape, and possibly we're dealing with an environment where the authorities aren't fully open to a relief effort of this kind," Horsey said.
"That's very frustrating."
The UN refugee agency said its first aid convoy had arrived by land over the Thai border, but it was to be unloaded on to Myanmar trucks and it was not clear who would distribute the supplies including tents and tarpaulins.
"We're hoping that the authorities will keep their word and give us access to monitor the distribution of these materials," spokeswoman Vivian Tan told AFP in the border town of Mae Sot.
Ignoring calls to put off Saturday's vote and focus on saving lives, the government went ahead with the referendum on a new constitution in all but the worst-affected areas — which will vote later in the month.
The regime says the vote is a key step in its much-criticised "road map" to democracy and will lead the country, formerly known as Burma, to national elections within two years.
But the last time there was a national ballot, in 1990, democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide. She was never allowed to rule, and instead has been under house arrest for much of the time since.
Among its provisions, the constitution would forever make it illegal for her to lead the country.
The regime, which has long scorned the opinion of the international community, has tried to mobilise the people to vote in favour of the constitution.
As it has for days, state television Saturday broadcast patriotic songs urging people to approve the charter, alternating with images of planes unloading food — and military officers handing it out to the grateful poor.
But the reality on the ground is sharply at odds with the government propaganda.
Many survivors of the cyclone, which hit last Saturday, say they have nothing to eat or drink. Their villages have been washed away, many of their relatives are dead — and their fury at the government is at fever pitch.
In the trading town of Pathein, on the edge of the Irrawaddy delta where ramshackle villages bore the brunt of the destruction, a voting booth was set up just down the street from a camp for the homeless.
"Many of the residents here feel so angry at the government when we see victims of the storm coming to our town," one teashop owner said.
"People are not that interested in voting. What we care about is the storm victims," he said. "Many of them are disgusted with the government. It has been so slow to help."


Serbia adopts EU, Russia deals ahead of crunch polls

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by David Vujanovic*

Serbia's coalition government, which collapsed in disarray over East-West ties, adopted deals with the European Union and Russia on Friday, two days before crunch general elections.
An EU rapprochement accord was approved by pro-European parties without the backing of outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's nationalists, who left the cabinet session for the vote.
However they later returned to the meeting to vote on the energy deal with Russia, which was unanimously accepted by both camps.
"The two basic pillars of Serbia's foreign policy are EU integration and solid and close relations with Russia, and these two agreements confirmed that," Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, of the pro-European camp, later told a press conference.
Kostunica said in a statement that his alliance chose to walk out for the vote on the EU accord because it was "anti-constitutional and against the state and national interests of Serbia."
The cabinet session was held even though a campaign blackout entered force overnight, ahead of Sunday elections expected to give ultra-nationalists their best shot at power since Slobodan Milosevic's ouster in 2000.
As it took place, more than 1,000 supporters of the pro-Western Liberal Democratic Party staged a noisy demonstration outside the government offices in Belgrade to protest the Russian deal.
The energy deal "threatens the economic, political and strategic interests of Serbia," Vladimir Pavicevic, an LDP member and politics professor, told the rally.
The government — a wobbly coalition of Kostunica's nationalists and President Boris Tadic's pro-Europeans — crumbled in March after most EU nations recognised Kosovo's independence.
Tadic's Democratic Party (DS) had put on the agenda the EU Stabilisation and Association Agreement, a rapprochement accord Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic inked with Brussels on April 29.
The DS move was seen as an attempt to cast Kostunica as an anti-European and to divide the ranks and supporters of his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), many of whom still want to eventually join the 27-nation bloc.
The energy agreement — signed by Belgrade and Moscow in January — includes plans for a strategic gas pipeline through Serbia and the sale of 51 percent of state-owned oil monopoly NIS to Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Kostunica, who favours close ties with Russia, has made the battle to keep Kosovo within Serbia the cornerstone of his re-election bid.
Some 40 nations including the United States and all but a handful from the EU have recognised Kosovo since its ethnic Albanian-dominated parliament unilaterally declared independence on February 17.
The traumatic loss of the southern territory — viewed by most Serbs as the cradle of their history, culture and Orthodox Christian religion — has buoyed nationalists ahead of the elections.
As a result, the Serbian Radical Party leads Tadic's alliance of pro-European parties by a narrow margin in surveys and is expected to form a nationalist government with Kostunica's DSS.
The parliamentary and local polls will also be held in Kosovo, despite opposition from the United Nations and Kosovo Albanians about the local elections.
On Friday, hundreds of Albanians dumped garbage outside the UN and Kosovo government offices in Pristina to protest their decision to ignore the Serbian elections.
"If there were no demonstrations against Serbia's elections … then the world would have understood this as consent or weakness from Albanians and the path for the cantonisation of Kosovo would have opened," said protest organiser Albin Kurti.
A total of 6,865,400 people are eligible to vote in the elections including more than 115,000 Serbs scattered across Kosovo, where Albanians account for around 90 percent of the 1.8 million population.