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Burma Completes First Week of Meetings Aimed at Drafting Constitution - 2004-05-21


In Burma, more than 1,000 delegates have completed a first week of meetings aimed at drafting a constitution for a civilian democracy. However, critics say that Burma's military government is dictating the proceedings and note that leading opposition parties are boycotting.

Delegates to Burma's national convention spent most of the past week hearing a set of principles laid down by the military rulers.

Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, who is also a member of the ruling military junta (SPDC), opened the convention Monday saying it would be a continuation of a meeting convened 11 years ago. That meeting was suspended in 1996 after the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) walked out, accusing the government of manipulating the proceedings.

The NLD had won national elections in 1990, but was not allowed to assume power. The NLD is boycotting this convention because its two top leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, are under house arrest. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, which finished second in those elections, is also boycotting the new convention.

Professor Chayachoke Chulasiriwong of Thailand's Chulalongkorn University noted that although the NLD is boycotting, the junta has managed to convince more than a dozen former ethnic rebel groups to participate. ?Now, the SPDC has improved itself and tried to set the conditions so that, in one way or another, it would look better than in 1996,? he said.

General Thein Sein told delegates at the opening session that there were six objectives. These include preserving the unity and sovereignty of the state and establishing what he called a flourishing, multi-party democracy. However, a controversial (sixth) objective guarantees the military the right to participate in the political leadership of the state. The NLD's objection to this same provision was a main reason for the collapse of the previous convention.

A member of the Non-Violence International Civic group in Bangkok, Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, noted that because this convention is starting from where the previous meeting left off, most of the work has been done.

?When they left off from it, they had already set out the state structure, how the head of the state would be picked, how the legislature would be picked, the fundamental rights and duties of citizens,? he added. ?Basically this has already been laid out. So the question then becomes, what's left to discuss??

Before the NLD walkout, the convention had adopted 104 principles that call for a strong presidential system, a two-house legislature and regional assemblies.

Legislators would be chosen through elections, but the president would be selected by an electoral college, some of whose members will be military representatives appointed by the military commander-in-chief.

In addition, presidential candidates must possess strong nationalistic credentials, and members of a candidate's immediate family must be Burmese citizens. These measures are seen as favoring a military candidate and excluding Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was a British citizen.

The convention is part of a "road map" announced last August to draft a constitution and hold elections. The road map was announced after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member, strongly urged it to begin political reforms.

Professor Chayachoke said, however, he does not think the convention will bring much change. ?Whether NLD attends the meeting or the SPDC goes it alone, I'm quite sure that political power will still be in the hands of the military junta in Burma,? he said.

Mr. Moser-Puangsuwan said that one problem is that both sides are staking out positions and there has been little dialogue. He said that the parties need to sit down together without preconditions and discuss the country's problems.

?The road map did not actually spell out a process,? he explained. ?It's a series of conclusions, essentially. The positions we have seen thrown out by some of the opposition groups are the same. They are demands to be met before dialogue happens.?

The national convention is being held under tight security at a military facility outside Rangoon. The proceedings are secret, and delegates are forbidden from discussing them with non-delegates.

Delegates are also forbidden from walking out of the convention. In addition, they have been advised to dress appropriately, to avoid taking baths at unreasonable times and to avoid eating junk food.

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