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Burma Opposition Leaders Discuss Constitutional Convention - 2004-05-08

Although Burma's military government has allowed leaders of the opposition to meet, there still is no sign pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi will be freed.

Senior members of Burma's National League for Democracy met Saturday at the home where Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest.

NLD spokesman U Lwin described the meeting as routine, but renewed the party's call for Aung San Suu Kyi's release. It was the second time the government allowed the party leadership to meet in the past several weeks.

Burma's military government is facing international pressure to release the Nobel laureate before a constitutional convention begins on May 17.

The convention will draw together more than one thousand delegates from the government, political parties and ethnic groups to draft a new constitution. A previous convention was halted in 1996, in part because the National League for Democracy withdrew from it, claiming government interference.

The NLD recently asked the government for the changes in the convention's procedures, but so far there has been no response.

In a recent interview with VOA, U Lwin said the government's unwillingness to respond to the calls for procedural changes worried the party.

"They [the government] are insisting that they will again convene a convention on the same procedures and the principles. That is what makes us rather hesitate to enter again," he said. "So we want to clarify, we want to flesh out before we enter into the convention."

The NLD's main concern lies in the government's insistence that the military maintain a leading role in any future government.

The NLD also says that Aung San Suu Kyi must be freed before the convention.

However, human rights activists think the government is fearful of her popularity and is likely to detain her until the convention is well under way.

"I think it's ominous that Aung San Suu Kyi has not yet been released from house arrest. And even though certain members of the NLD have been allowed to see her we're hoping that this is not another ploy by the regime to delay her release," said Debbie Stothardt, who is with the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.

Many Western and Asian countries have pressed Burma to release Aung San Suu Kyi and engage in dialogue with the NLD to ensure progress on political reform.

The NLD won elections in 1990 but the government refused to hand over power, and jailed most of the party's senior members for years. With help from the United Nations, relations between the party and the government began warming a few years ago and most senior members were freed. A year ago, however, they were again detained after NLD backers clashed with a pro-government crowd.