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Burma Moves Forward with Constitutional Convention, Despite Opposition Boycott - 2004-05-15

Burma's military government says it will go ahead with a constitutional drafting convention Monday, despite the main opposition party's refusal to participate.

The National League for Democracy said Friday it would not attend the convention because its leader, democracy activist Aung San Syuu Kyi, remains under house arrest. The NLD says other key conditions that that would have allowed it to take part in the convention have also been ignored by the government.

The government quickly replied that "in the interests of national unity," it would push ahead with the convention even without the NLD. An official statement said the convention would be the first step in the government's so-called road map to democracy.

However, analysts agree that without the participation of the NLD, and various other opposition parties who say they will stand with the NLD, the national convention will lose its credibility.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party won general elections in 1990 by a landslide, but the government never allowed them to take power. The Nobel Laureate has been under house arrest off and on since then.

Her latest detention began after a clash between her supporters and a pro-government mob a year ago. Many of senior NLD leaders who were detained at the same time have been released, but Aung San Suu Kyi and her deputy, Tin Oo, remain under house arrest.

Last month, the government said the NLD would be allowed to participate in the convention, but it never said Aung San Suu Kyi would personally be allowed to attend.

Aung Zaw, who lives in exile in northern Thailand and edits the Irawaddy newspaper, says the NLD and the government seem to have reached a stalemate.

"Clearly it shows the two sides couldn't reach any kind of breakthrough agreement," he said. "It seems the government is not ready, is not confident to release her [Aung San Suu Kyi] because she's going to speak out against the convention."

Various countries and organizations, including the United States, the United Nations and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have called on Burma to release Aung San Suu Kyi and Tin Oo and allow the NLD full participation in the drafting of a constitution.

Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow says Thailand still hopes Burma's government and the NLD will come to an agreement before the convention begins Monday.

"We're hoping that all side would continue with their efforts to try to work out the whatever issues that got in the way of the NLD participating in the National Convention," said Sihasak Phuangketkeow.

Burma, which has been ruled by military governments for more than 40 years, has no constitution. An earlier attempt to draft one ended in failure in 1996 after the NLD walked out, accusing the government of manipulating the event to maintain its hold on power.