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Burma's Military Ignores International Pressure, Postpones Visit by ASEAN Representative


Despite growing international pressure, Burma's military government has postponed a visit by a special representative of Southeast Asian nations to discuss its plan to bring democracy to Burma.

The international community appears to be growing more impatient with Burma over declining living standards, health and nutrition and continued political repression amid promises of reform.

December proved a watershed month.

For the first time ever, the United Nations Security Council held a briefing on what was termed the deteriorating situation in Burma.

In another first, Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- ASEAN -- used their summit to formally urge Burma to release political prisoners and provide tangible proof that it is moving toward democracy.

ASEAN decided to send Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, to Burma to check on reforms. But it is not yet clear when he'll be allowed to go. Syed said at the summit that ASEAN wants to support Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"We are trying to help Myanmar," he said. "And Myanmar has to help us in order to be able to convince the international community on the state of affairs in terms of democracy."

For several years, Burma's military leaders have promised democratic reforms - but have refused to set a timetable. They are drafting a new constitution using a carefully staged convention - which reconvened in early December.

Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, convention chairman and third-ranking official in Burma, says the convention is part of a seven-point plan to bring what he called disciplined democracy to Burma.

"This convention is the first and most crucial step in the transition to democracy. To get a genuine and disciplined democracy we have to follow these steps," he said. "There is no other way."

The 1,000 delegates, who are attending the convention, support the process. One of them, Win Win, explains why.

"We need a constitution and everybody is trying to achieve that goal," he said. "We haven't had a constitution for years."

But many key political leaders have been left out of the process. The opposition National League for Democracy, or N.L.D., is boycotting because its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is under house arrest.

The party won the 1990 elections but was never allowed to govern.

An N.L.D. spokesman, Nyan Win, says the National Convention, or N.C., is not representative of the Burmese people. "All the members of the N.C. [National Convention] are handpicked by the government, not according to the people's will." He says the military is controlling the convention in order to find a new way to legitimize its hold on power.

The national convention has so far has completed about half the constitution. Critics say it guarantees the military a major role in government and excludes many dissidents from politics.

In addition, a government-sponsored civic group called the Union for Solidarity and Development Association is gaining influence. It claims 22 million members or nearly half the Burmese population. Some believe it is to become the pro-military political party.

Its leader, Major-General Htay Oo, acknowledged the possibility at a recent news conference. "As public opinion changes and the situation changes in our country, our association can also change," he said. "But we will do what is best for the public."

Meanwhile, critics say years of economic decline due to mismanagement and international sanctions, could lead to social unrest.

Independent politician Win Naing, whose party has been banned in Burma, says however that Burmese still remember with fear the mass demonstrations of 1988 that brought a crackdown in which thousands were killed or imprisoned.

"The trauma of 1988 is still here," he said. "So the people are waiting patiently, trying to tolerate everything as much as possible, and they are waiting for the right time and the right movement, which they are not sure when they are coming."

Nevertheless, the Burmese government says it will proceed with its seven-point plan. And it blames the slow pace of the process on obstacles placed by what it calls jealous elements inside and outside the country.

As for the international community, it is not clear what next steps may be taken next to spur Burma to improve human rights while moving toward democracy.

Patience may be running out. Just this past week, the U.N. special envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail, resigned after not being allowed to visit Burma for two years. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed has hinted Burma's lack of response to diplomacy could lead to more punitive international sanctions.