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(New York) - The Burmese government should postpone the constitutional referendum scheduled for May 10, 2008 and focus on relieving the horrendous human suffering from Cyclone Nargis, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the Burmese government to stop blocking aid efforts and lift restrictions on international aid agencies so they can respond immediately to help survivors.

Despite the disaster, the military government has announced plans to continue with its constitutional referendum, although it has postponed voting in 47 townships (districts) in southwestern Burma badly affected by the cyclone, including the former capital Rangoon, until May 24.

“The Burmese government is blocking international aid efforts in part to keep foreigners out until the voting is over,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But those without clean water, food or medical care can’t wait any longer for help – they need it now. It’s time to pull the plug on the referendum and open up to aid workers and their supplies.”

The Human Rights Watch report, “Vote to Nowhere: The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma,” shows rampant human rights abuses in Burma mean the constitutional referendum would be neither free nor fair. Human Rights Watch said the proposed constitution would not promote greater democracy in Burma, but would instead cement continuing military rule.

Cyclone Nargis devastated parts of lower Burma on May 2-3, resulting in the deaths of at least 23,000 people, the government says. More than 1 million people are now homeless in Irrawaddy, Rangoon and Pegu divisions. More than 2,000 square miles (5,000 square kilometers) of the Irrawaddy Delta, Burma’s main rice-growing region, are flooded with salt water, and communities are stranded by flooded roads.

Despite offers of assistance from the United Nations and dozens of countries, the ruling State Peace and Development Council has permitted only very limited supplies of international relief assistance into the country. Relief teams and aid material are waiting to deploy from Australia, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Numerous aid workers are in Bangkok waiting for visas to get into Burma.

The operating environment for the provision of humanitarian aid by UN agencies and international aid organizations has been sharply restricted since the Burmese government instituted new guidelines in February 2006. These guidelines impose cumbersome travel and monitoring procedures for foreign staff, although the Burmese staff of foreign organizations is granted more latitude.

Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to open cyclone-affected areas to a major international relief effort, by immediately granting visas to aid workers, by allowing UN and international humanitarian agencies to distribute the aid they provide directly to those in need, and by allowing countries with military assets nearby to deliver aid by air and sea to survivors who cannot be reached quickly any other way. Many affected communities are only accessible by air and sea, which makes assistance by countries that are equipped to deal with humanitarian disasters essential.

While the Burmese military has played a logistical role in the early stage of the relief efforts, it is important that such duties be handed over to the appropriate government agencies and experienced, professional aid organizations – both national and international – as soon as possible.

Under international law, the million or so people thought to have been made homeless by the cyclone are considered internally displaced. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a state should not arbitrarily withhold permission for international humanitarian organizations and other appropriate actors to provide aid, “particularly when authorities concerned are unable or unwilling to provide the required humanitarian assistance.” The principles further state that, “All authorities concerned shall grant and facilitate the free passage of humanitarian assistance and grant persons engaged in the provision of such assistance rapid and unimpeded access to the internally displaced.”

Since the government’s violent crackdown on monks and pro-democracy protestors in September 2007, China, India, and Thailand have said that the problems in Burma should be left alone as an “internal issue” or should be dealt with in the region.

“As major trading partners and backers of the Burmese government, China, India and Thailand have a particular responsibility to insist aid gets in,” said Pearson. “Failure to press Burma’s generals publicly on international aid will make it clear their claims to be concerned about the Burmese people are meaningless.”

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