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Burma Opens Constitutional Conference Despite Opposition Boycott

Burma's military government has reopened a national convention to draft a new constitution. The military leadership says its wants to bring democracy to Burma, but critics say some important opposition groups have been excluded from the process.

A senior member of the Burmese military junta, General Thein Sein, Thursday reopened the national constitutional convention. He says his government wants an orderly transition to democracy.

General Thein Sein says the government wants to establish a durable, disciplined democracy that is free from terrorism and anarchy, which he says afflict some democratic countries.

One thousand delegates - most of them chosen by the government - were in attendance, representing various ethnic groups, former rebels, peasants, intellectuals and political parties. They are to draft a constitution as part of a road map to democracy announced by the government 18 months ago.

However, two major opposition parties are boycotting the conference. One of these is the National League for Democracy whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi and Deputy leader Tin Oo, have been under house arrest since a crackdown nearly two

years ago. A party leader who was released from prison last November, Ohn Maung, says the detentions are the main reason for the boycott.

"We are not going to participate as long as our top leaders - Aung San Suu Kyi, retired General Tin Oo - are not released," he said. "Only when they and other political prisoners of the N.L.D. are released, we will consider to participate in the convention."

He says without the N.L.D., the convention lacks credibility.

The other party, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, is boycotting for similar reasons.

Delegates to the conference, however, voiced support for the process. A representative of Eastern Shan State, Hong Khem says the conference is progressing well.

" We are free, we can speak anything, no restriction," he said.

He says the people of his state feel differently from some people of Northern Shan State, who are still conducting a rebellion against Rangoon.

A delegate representing the Palang ethnic group, U Mang Kyaw, says the convention will be good for the country.

He acknowledges that the convention is not completely free as there are some restrictions on content.

Organizers say the conference is looking at the issue of separation of powers between the central Burmese government and several states that aspire to various degrees of autonomy. The judicial system under the new constitution is also to be discussed.

A two-month session last year examined measures regarding the executive and legislative branches of government. It also adopted measures ensuring that the military would retain a significant role in any future government.

Burma has not had a constitution since 1988. The junta held elections in 1990, but refused to cede power when the N.L.D. won in a landslide.