MEE LAUNG KWIN (NYT), Myanmar — As the fisherman sat mending cyclone-damaged nets in his riverside hut here on Saturday, he said he had not known it was the day he and other residents of the Irrawaddy Delta were supposed to vote on the new military-backed Constitution.
But the fisherman, 54, did remember that a village leader affiliated with the ruling junta told him and his neighbors a few days earlier that he had already marked ballots for them and sent them to the regional authorities.
“He said he made the right choice for us,” the fisherman said with a shrug. “So we said, ‘O.K., no objection.’ ” The fisherman’s name was not used because of the possibility of retaliation by the government.
In Yangon, more than 60 miles northeast of his delta village, an official at a government-run company said the 1,000 or so workers there had not voted either: the company marked ballots for them as well.
“This was my first chance to exercise my right to vote, but the government did it for us without our knowledge,” said the official, in his late 30s. “None of our staff dared say that we wanted to vote ourselves. This is standard in Myanmar.”
The same thing happened at the military-run company where his wife works, he said.
At least 135,000 people are dead or missing since a cyclone struck Myanmar, formerly Burma, on May 3, in the world’s biggest natural disaster since the Asian tsunami in 2004. For the junta that runs the country, however, politics has consistently trumped aid, local residents said and some government officials acknowledged.
On Tuesday, officials allowed foreign aid workers to travel to the hardest-hit areas of the Irrawaddy Delta for the first time. But the numbers reaching devastated coastal communities were still tiny — fewer than 20 by some estimates — suggesting that the government was still determined to keep an iron grip on the provision of aid.
The United Nations estimates that 1.5 million people who survived the cyclone are still struggling to find food and clean water and that the death toll could rise sharply unless supplies reach them soon. But the Burmese government claims that it can handle relief work by itself and that foreign nations should instead provide billions of dollars to help the junta rebuild the country later.
Over the weekend, military leaders pressed ahead with the vote on the new Constitution, which would prolong their rule by, among other things, allotting 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military.
Saturday’s referendum in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, and the Irrawaddy Delta, the regions most affected by the cyclone, took place after two weeks of delay. The rest of the country voted May 10, as scheduled, just a week after the storm. Even before the final round of balloting, state radio said that round could not reverse the Constitution’s approval because 92.48 percent of the 22 million eligible voters had already voted for it on May 10. In any case, The New Light of Myanmar, the state-run newspaper, reported Tuesday that voters in Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta had affirmed the Constitution by an even more resounding 92.93 percent.
Critics said the referendum as a whole was a sham.
In the days before the Saturday referendum in Yangon, homeless cyclone victims taking shelter in schools and other public buildings were evicted to make room for polling places. In four delta villages visited Saturday, villagers gave the same answer: The government had voted for them; they did not even get to see the ballots.
“We are not interested in voting; we are starving for food,” said a villager at Zee Phyu Chaung, a delta hamlet where those interviewed were aware that Saturday was referendum day. “Our village leader voted for us two days in advance, and we don’t know how he voted.”
Such stories did not surprise the Yangon government official, who compared living in Myanmar to “living in a prison with a very big border.”
The man spoke in English during an interview arranged on the condition that his name and personal details not be disclosed for fear of government retribution for criticizing the junta to outside journalists.
Interviews with Burmese farmers and fishermen in the Irrawaddy Delta and with businessmen and officials revealed the frustration and quiet perseverance of people in this poor and politically repressive country.
The official and several businessmen in Yangon said the government’s attitude toward its people was best illustrated by the discrepancy between its swift and harsh reaction to a popular uprising led by Buddhist monks last September and its foot-dragging in aiding victims of Cyclone Nargis.
“You saw what happened in 1988 and last September,” the official said, referring to the junta’s bloody crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrators. “In other countries, if you stand up against the government, you may get tear gas. Here you get the bullet. I have a wife and a child to support. I can’t risk my life.”
When asked about his future, the official pulled on his cigarette and mentioned what other young, relatively well-educated Burmese call “voting by foot.”
“If you can’t fight it, if you can’t reform it, it leaves you with just one option: leaving this country and going abroad to find a decent job and give your child a better future,” he said.
That is not easy. As is the case with other officials, his passport is held by the government. If he wants to travel abroad, he must apply to have his passport returned, a process that he said takes two months, assuming it is successful, and requires a fair amount of bribes. “Otherwise, all government officials would emigrate,” he said. “We Burmese are born oppressed.”
The signs of that oppression are pervasive, even in the Internet cafes of Yangon, where young people in crowded rooms play computer games and exchange news and photos of the cyclone’s victims with friends overseas.
Employees are deft at helping customers bypass government firewalls to visit foreign Web sites. When a user logs out, the computer usually shows a notice reminding him to erase all his Internet download history, a bizarre snippet of life in a society where one Yangon businessman said “fear is a dominant motivator in everyday life.”