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Burmese Military Government Prepares to Re-Open Constitutional Convention

Burma's military leaders are preparing to resume a constitutional convention Monday, December 5, which they say is the first step toward democracy after decades of military rule. Critics say the conference lacks legitimacy because of a boycott by major opposition groups.

The military government of Burma Monday is re-convening the national convention to draft a constitution and organize elections. More than 1,000 delegates are to attend, representing ethnic minorities, former rebels and civilians from various sectors of society.

The convention was opened in February by a senior member of the military junta, General Thein Sein, who said his government wants a durable democracy. General Thein Sein told delegates the government wants to establish a disciplined democracy that is free from terrorism and anarchy, which he says afflict some democratic countries.

The convention was adjourned after several months.

Burma's largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, is boycotting the convention because its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her deputy, U Tin Oo, remain under house arrest, two-and-a-half years after a crackdown on the party.

A leader of a group of exiled NLD politicians, (Daw) San San, says the convention is illegal.

"That National Convention is illegitimate, not legitimate, because it was convened by the government which is not a de jure [legally elected] government but a de facto government, and in the National Convention, the participants are hand-picked and not elected," she said.

She adds that the proceedings are not democratic because the military leadership controls the debate.

A group representing the Shan ethnic minority also is boycotting the convention for similar reasons. But many former rebel groups that have signed cease-fire agreements with the government are attending.

The national convention first convened in 1993, three years after the military refused to accept the results of elections that the NLD won. But the convention was suspended after the NLD walked out.

The Burmese leadership says the disciplined democracy it envisions should include a major role for the military. As a result, the draft constitution would reserve one-fourth of the parliamentary seats for the military.

The constitution also would exclude any parliamentary candidates who have a foreign-born spouse or who lived abroad within the past 25 years. These measures are said to be aimed at keeping Aung San Suu Kyi and exiled opposition leaders from power.

An expert on Burma at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, Panitan Wattanayagorn, says expectations for the convention are low.

"The military government is buying time, since the Burmese government knows very well that the pressure for democratization in Burma and, particularly, the pressure for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is increasing as the years go by," he said.

Many Western governments, led by the United States and the European Union, have imposed sanctions on Burma. However, China and members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, oppose sanctions. They say that working with Rangoon is more likely to bring reform than isolating it.

Professor Panitan says, however, that Asian governments are coming under increasing international pressure to adopt a stronger stance.

"Nations that are supporting Burma, including ASEAN and possibly China are also losing their patience," he added. "They need to see some kind of concrete progress in Burma. These countries are very critical to the Burmese economic well-being, especially China."

Several prominent Nobel Peace Prize winners and the United Nations human rights envoy to Burma recently issued new condemnations of Rangoon's human rights record. And a few days ago, the U.S. government called for the Security Council to be briefed on what was termed the deteriorating situation in Burma.

The Burmese government says it will proceed at its own pace and international pressure will only slow any moves toward reform.