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Burmese Military Government Opens National Convention - 2004-05-17

In Burma, the military government has opened a national convention that is part of its road map toward democracy. The meeting is going ahead despite a boycott by the pro-democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi and eight ethnic groups.

The chairman of the convention, Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, opened the meeting Monday by telling delegates they are to formulate fundamental principles to draw up a constitution.

The general, who is also a member of the ruling military junta, said the meeting was a continuation of the national convention began in 1993. That was three years after the military suspended national elections that the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won in a landslide. The convention was suspended in 1996 after the NLD walked out saying the government was manipulating the proceedings.

The government invited 54 NLD members to attend this week's meeting, but the party declined, because its chairman, Aung San Suu Kyi, and vice-chairman Tin Oo, are still under house arrest.

U Lwin, the NLD spokesman, said that without the party and Aung San Suu Kyi, the convention has little meaning. "This convention has no status whatsoever to draft a constitution," he said.

Eight parties representing different ethnic groups also declined to attend. They include the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, which won the second largest number of parliament seats in the 1990 elections.

The government says it is disappointed by the boycott but insists that the convention will proceed anyway.

Thailand, which has been trying to encourage democratic reforms in Burma through a series of international meetings, has expressed concern over the boycott.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's spokesman, Jakrapob Penkair said, however, that Thailand still supports the convention. "Nobody would argue that if all sides attend the meeting, the effectiveness of such a convention would be greatly enhanced. But it takes time. It is the first step. It is not the final step," he said.

The national convention is the first of a seven-step road map announced by the government last August to bring democracy to Burma. It is to lead to the drafting of a constitution and free elections for a national legislature.

Dissidents and human rights groups, however, criticize it as pointless without the NLD.

A member of the ALTSEAN-Burma advocacy group, Debbie Stothard, said the absence of the NLD underscores the illegitimacy of convention. "The national convention has been an illegitimate process ever since it was conceived 14 years ago as an excuse not to convene parliament," she said.

Ms. Stothard said that the Burmese government, by refusing to release the two NLD leaders, has shown that it is not interested in genuine reconciliation and the main purpose of the road map is to ease international pressure.

Many developed countries have placed severe economic sanctions on Burma because of its human rights record and treatment of the opposition.