Contributor’s note: This post was written before Cyclone Nargis went through Myanmar on May 2 and 3. The government has since not said whether or not the May 10 referendum will be postponed. It has declared Ayeyarwady, Yangon and Bago Divisions, and Kayin and Mon States disaster zones. At this time housing, food and clean water for the hundreds of thousands affected are the priorities. (Update: According to latest reports, state media has said that the referendum will go ahead as planned.)

In the last week or so, campaigning for and against a new draft constitution of Myanmar has intensified. It’s lopsided campaigning, with government newspapers, television and billboards insisting that everyone is duty-bound to vote YES while radio stations and websites operating from abroad cry foul and report on small efforts inside the country to encourage people to vote NO. But it’s campaigning nonetheless.

The manner in which the campaigning and voting are conducted is in many ways more interesting than the draft constitution’s contents, which leave no doubt about those supposed to remain in charge and what they think about having a constitution at all. (There is a bilingual version of the draft on the New Mandala website here, and Human Rights Watch has, among others, a short critique of its contents in a new report here.)

The government insists that the ballot will be closed and it has distributed a lengthy document full of orders to this effect, parts of which have been reproduced in domestic periodicals. One, the popular news journal Weekly Eleven, also has on the front of its latest edition a bold title that, “Having only one box, on account of secret ballot, voters can freely reveal true desire”. The text that follows offers views on the merits of the voting procedure this time around, in contrast to the last referendum in 1974 when there were two separate ballot boxes and voters had to stroll over to one or the other in full view of their friendly neighbourhood administrators. “As far as I know,” one ex-voter is quoted as saying, “In some parts of Shan State where there were no ballot boxes they used two bamboo tubes.” Clearly, things are supposed to have moved on since those days.

This insistence upon a closed ballot is at odds with the army’s track record. It did not get its way either time that the public was free to choose for or against it. The candidates it backed in the general elections of both 1960 and 1990 were thrashed. Plans for further attempts at electoral legitimacy were thereafter shelved until the house could be put back in order, or in the former case, until it fell to bits again. Unlike in some other countries of Southeast Asia, this army has never adapted to political life. Its officers in 2008 remain, as they were when they forced their way into power in 1958, military men. Political life has instead been forced to adapt to them. So if they can achieve a victory this time around it will be unprecedented.

Perhaps that’s why the Light of Myanmar makes things sound rather less free than Weekly Eleven. Apart from sloganeering, it is daily circulating news on the information minister’s rallying tour in the countryside and regional commanders’ enthusiastic speechifying, interspersed with optimistic cartoons, such as one with a plant wilting under a dry watering can representing the weaknesses of former constitutions, but flourishing under one pouring forth the new draft. The May 2 edition even carried a page with fatuous comments by movie stars and assorted artistes. And while some writers may find the whole topic rather dry material for poetry, others such as Thiri Khin (Dagon) are trying their best:

With eight groups the National Convention opened; with national spirit wrote true. The voice of all national races: the draft constitution; for our voice to reach the sky, do lend support!

The paper’s opinion writers are as usual happily uniform in opinion, but in this they are at least talking up the value of having a constitution and the importance of separating powers a little bit. Sai Thiha’s “Only when everyone fulfills their duty will there be rights for all” is typical. The author begins by describing democracy as being characterised by peace, stability and the rule of law, thus far keeping commonsense more or less on his side. But it’s difficult to follow his subsequent argument that the failures of the previous two constitutions somehow oblige the armed forces to cleave off a quarter of seats in parliament for the exclusive use of their backsides, perhaps because it’s not his argument at all.

Although dubious, the claimed commitment to rights, democracy and the rule of law is a strong part of the propaganda effort accompanying the plebiscite. By increasingly occupying the same rhetorical ground as the constitution’s opponents, the state has effectively reduced its quarrels with enemies at home and abroad from differences of ideology to those of meaning and practice.

What of the enemies? The short wave “sky full of lies” has been crowded with stories about people who have been threatened and cajoled into voting the right way, others told that they have already voted without knowing it, and still others who claim to have no idea about what they are supposed to do come the big day. There are many reports of public servants around the country being called to meetings where their duty, if somehow still eluding them, has been iterated. Some claim to have been told that they needn’t inconvenience themselves with the poll as votes have automatically been cast on their behalf. But still others stationed at the new capital have said that they haven’t yet even been informed of where they are to go to vote.

The manner in which warnings are being issued seems to vary considerably from each locality and audience to the next. According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, beauty and massage parlour owners in one area were called to a meeting at which they were told that their businesses would be closed if they didn’t vote correctly. It did not explain how the officials intend to attribute individual beauticians’ and masseuses’ names to specific votes, or why persons working in these fields deserve a special reprimand compared to, say, liquor salesmen or barbers. Farmers in some parts have also similarly been threatened with having land confiscated if they don’t do the right thing. The Voice of America broadcast that soldiers in some battalions too have been warned that where they or their families are found to have voted against the charter then there will be consequences for entire units.

The wide variety of nefarious methods allegedly being used to get ticks rather than crosses on ballots, even to the point of threatening people with jail terms, suggests that these are perhaps for the most part the doings of local authorities frightened that they will be punished if they don’t get the required result in their village or town. As the daily media barrage makes plain that those who vote NO are traitors and anarchists, village and township leaders especially have cause for concern that they will take the blame if their constituencies prove themselves to be among these types and their minions.

That’s also perhaps why most of the reported abuses in the lead up to the poll involve council officials and others working on their behalf. They include councilors going to collect votes in advance from people in their houses, and padding the electoral rolls with underage or non-existent voters on whose behalf they will have their say. A Thailand-based group has obtained a copy of what it says is a dummy ballot being distributed in one region. The front has a big green tick and the text above the box, “To reach a new country”, while the back includes space for personal details, including name, residence and identity card number. The exact purpose of these tickets or how many may have been printed is not apparent.

Not surprisingly campaigners against the charter have been routinely harassed, some called to police stations and warned, some, their houses attacked. Security in urban areas especially has been ramped up considerably, not least of all around troublesome monasteries. Despite this, the National League for Democracy has said that it will wait and see how things go come May 10.

There is much to wait and see. As the electorate is not supposed to contemplate rejecting the draft, the possibility of this happening does not seem to have been raised, at least in public. But nor should this be expected in a country where government has for decades followed whim rather than design, and where the rout at the last poll was followed by a long period of disarray. At least one writer for the Light of Myanmar appeared to infer, perhaps inadvertently, that it wouldn’t make much difference either way. In encouraging everyone to get out and support the new constitution, the anonymous author reverted to an English platitude: “Don’t put off to tomorrow what can be done today.”