Myanmar ‘forces’ civil servants to vote

By Aung Hla Tun, Reuters

YANGON — Hundreds of government workers in Myanmar have been forced to vote in favor of an army-drafted constitution in non-secret ballots held more than a week before a May 10 referendum, some of the workers said.

In one of the cases, about 700 employees in the Ministry of Electric Power-2’s Yangon office had to tick their ballot papers on Wednesday with local referendum officials looking on, witnesses said.

“We were all shocked and some people were furious but they couldn’t do anything,” one of those present said. The worker did not want to be identified for fear of recriminations from the former Burma’s military rulers.

“They said those who wanted to vote ‘no’ had to hand in their resignation,” the worker said.

The United States has already written off the vote, with President George W. Bush saying it would not be “free, fair or credible” as he announced new sanctions on Thursday against state owned companies to put pressure on the junta.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith also weighed in, saying the entire process was “fatally flawed” and echoing the concerns of a host of opposition groups that the charter was “intended only to entrench the military’s grip on power”.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has rejected the charter since it gives the army a quarter of seats in parliament, control of key ministries and the right to suspend the constitution at will.

Suu Kyi, who has been held under house arrest and incommunicado for the last five years, appeared in the official voter list released on Friday, suggesting she will able to cast her ballot, party members and witnesses said.

However, it is highly likely the icon of the democracy movement and daughter of independence hero Aung San will be made to vote behind closed doors and in advance to prevent her from appearing in public — a potential flashpoint.

“Her number is 2281,” one person who had seen her name at the bottom of the 190-page list for her Yangon ward told Reuters.

Civil servants in Naypyidaw, the generals’ new capital 240 miles (390 km) north of Yangon, also reported advance voting in which they were forced to endorse the charter.

“They even told us to ensure that all our family members vote ‘yes’. I’m really angry with myself because I couldn’t do anything,” one middle-ranking officer told Reuters.

“I have to stick it out because of my family. I’ve never felt more humiliated in about 20 years service here. I really wish I had voted ‘no’,” he added.

The constitution is a key component of a seven-step “roadmap to democracy” that is meant to culminate in multi party elections in 2010 and bring an end to nearly five decades of military rule.