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Burmese Exiles Critical of Government Constitutional Reforms


Exiled Burmese pro-democracy leaders say the country's efforts to draft a national constitution are falling far short of the military government's stated goal of fostering genuine democracy. In Washington Wednesday, the Voice of America hosted a panel discussion of Burma's constitutional process, which is moving forward without the participation of major opposition groups.

At last week's reconvening of Burma's constitutional convention outside Rangoon, the military junta's first secretary, Lieutenant General Thein Sein, sounded like a democrat.

"Our government has several objectives, including the establishment of a genuine multi-party democratic system - and this convention is designed to further that objective," he said.

But critics say a huge gulf exists between the general's words and Burma's current political reality.

"The military has conducted this constitutional convention in a manner which they have heavily scripted,” said David Steinberg, who directs Asian studies at Georgetown University in Washington. “They have controlled the process, they have controlled debate in the past, and they will [tolerate] no interference form other people, including opposition groups, in determining what the constitution might look like."

The military junta handpicked most of the delegates to the convention, which was boycotted by two major opposition parties. One party, the National League for Democracy, is protesting the continued house arrest of its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as a deputy. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has said the absence of Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders erodes the convention's credibility in the eyes of the international community.

Those words were echoed by Sein Win, leader of the exiled National Coalition of Government of the Union of Burma, who says the constitutional exercise, as it is currently being carried out, will not move Burma forward.

"This process will not give us, Burma and the people, any opportunity for bettering their lives,” he said. “The suffering will go on, problems will go on, because the constitution and this process is meant to legitimize their [the military's] rule."

Keith Luse, an aide to Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says Aung San Suu Kyi will not be forgotten by the international community, and that her absence will overshadow anything Burma's military junta attempts to do.

"Many of her colleagues and other democracy leaders are still under arrest or have been newly arrested,” he added. “The personal security detail of Aung San Suu Kyi has been removed. Why is this? What are her circumstances now? What is her health? What is her personal condition? These are very important questions that will not go away simply by holding a national convention."

Georgetown University professor David Steinberg says Burma's opposition groups face a dilemma: whether to take part in a flawed constitutional exercise in hopes of swaying the process in some way, or to stand on the sidelines.

"It is, in a way, a no-win situation either way, it seems to me. And that is what makes it so sad," said Mr. Steinberg.

Burma has lacked a constitution since the military seized power in 1988. The junta hopes to have a democratic constitution in place by 2006, when Burma is to assume chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But Lieutenant General Thein Sein has said that order and stability are essential prerequisites to a successful and lasting democracy in the historically fragmented and fractious nation.

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