Associated Press
A Myanmar man prepares to vote Saturday. The vote was delayed in some cyclone-ravaged areas.

YANGON, Myanmar — In this cyclone-ravaged country where most people have more important things on their minds, such as the daily struggle for fresh water, food and shelter, Myanmar's ruling generals sent their people to the polls Saturday to vote on a constitution that opponents call a cynical attempt to maintain the junta's grip on power.

The regime insists that the vote to approve the new constitution, held in parts of the country that weren't affected by last weekend's devastating storm, is part of its road map to "discipline-flourishing genuine multiparty democracy."

But critics charge that the constitution, drafted by a 54-member commission hand-picked by the junta, is a stacked deck: mandating a role for the military in the government and banning detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for office because she once was married to a foreigner.

Amid images of voters casting ballots, state-run television broadcast video of junta leader Gen. Than Shwe and other generals handing out boxes of relief aid to cyclone survivors. In case anyone missed the point, the boxes were plastered with the generals' names.

The military regime, which has been in power since 1962, has refused to grant visas to most foreign aid workers eager to get into the disaster zone, assess survivors' health and housing needs and coordinate the delivery of medicine, food, shelter and building materials.

The generals went ahead with the referendum despite a warning Friday from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Myanmar's rulers should "concentrate their very limited resources, time and energy on saving lives and reconstructing their country. Then I think they can do the referendum at a later date," he added.

The junta postponed the referendum in Yangon, the country's largest city, and the rest of cyclone-hit southern Myanmar. It plans to call people in those areas to vote May 24.

The people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, have not voted in nearly two decades. The last elections were in 1990, when Suu Kyi stunned the regime by winning in a landslide; the generals annulled the results and jailed many of the victors.

Criticizing the regime is a crime punished with a stiff jail sentence, and ordinary people rarely have anything good to say about the generals. So those willing to talk about the vote in Yangon on Saturday spoke on condition they not be named.

"We've never experienced this kind of thing before, so people are afraid," one young man said. "People have heard all sorts of rumors, like they'll be watched by closed-circuit TV cameras, or the regime will have some other way to find out how they vote. And then punish anyone who voted 'no.' "

They have good reason to worry about challenging the junta's will. At the end of March, 30 members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy held a peaceful protest in Yangon wearing T-shirts with the word "no." Three days later, security forces detained five of the marchers.

Government workers say they were told that voting "no" in the referendum would cost them their jobs.

But the digital revolution has given opponents a relatively safe way of urging a "no" vote. Cell phones were beeping a barrage of instant messages as people in Yangon asked family and friends in other parts of the country to reject the draft constitution.

The military is making its latest power grab as anger grows over the generals' slow response to the emergency and their refusal to allow a full-scale international relief operation.

Ramming through an unpopular constitution as people are trying to cope in the aftermath of a killer cyclone risks igniting unrest on the scale of last year's protests against fuel price hikes, which sparked the biggest protests against the junta in 20 years.

In 1993, three years after rejecting Suu Kyi's election victory, the junta opened a convention to write a new constitution that the generals promised would restore democracy and preserve national unity. Opposition members complained that the military manipulated the process to guarantee its control over the country after promised elections in 2010.

In addition to the ban on Suu Kyi, the constitution would bar thousands of her supporters from public office because they have been charged with crimes under the regime's draconian security laws, which include a ban on gatherings of more than five people.

The constitution explicitly says the military must "be able to participate in the national leadership role of the state" and would give the commander in chief the power to appoint one-quarter of the members of both houses of Parliament, which would give the military veto power over any legislation.

The generals also would have a role in choosing the president and two vice presidents, and some Cabinet posts would be reserved for the military.