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Burmese Military, Restarting Constitutional Convention Yet Again, Cracks Down on Activists

Burma's government is about to restart its on-again, off-again constitutional convention, which it says will eventually lead to democratic elections. But even as it prepares for the convention, the regime has arrested senior pro-democracy activists.

Burma's military government says it will crush opponents of the national convention drafting a new constitution, which is due to reopen on Tuesday.

A Burmese judge told reporters the delegates will be debating, among other things, the rights of citizens and the role of the military, which has effectively ruled Burma since 1962.

The government says the convention is part of a seven-step roadmap toward democracy, outlined in 2003 by then Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. In fact, the convention, which resumes work after a break of nine months, was first convened 13 years ago.

The United Nations Security Council, meanwhile is about to hear debate, prompted by the United States, on the lack of reform in Burma. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, of which Burma is a member, has also been putting pressure on the generals to make genuine moves toward democracy.

Carl Thayer, a professor from the University of New South Wales, says the main reason for holding the convention is to ease this international pressure on the regime.

"These [convention] talks signal a change, a tactical change," said Thayer. "The fact they've done it is responding to some of ASEAN's concerns: 'What is your roadmap to democracy, where's the constitution, when are elections being held?'"

Last month, in advance of the convention, the military detained several prominent activists, including some of those who took part in a 1988 nationwide uprising against military rule. That pro-democracy uprising was brutally suppressed, with thousands of people reported killed.

Human rights groups say the arrested activists, including Min Zeya, a leader of the 1988 uprising, were only attempting to open a "dialogue" with the military, in order to put forward opinions on the convention.

One human rights activist says the arrests were a means of silencing the opposition, in order to get some of the convention's delayed objectives completed.

The arrests have triggered an unusual campaign of defiance in the tightly controlled state, however, with tens-of-thousands of people signing a petition calling for the release of the detainees.

The opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under detention since 2003, has refused to take part in the convention, saying it is aimed merely at entrenching the military's hold on power.

The United Nations, meanwhile, has confirmed that a senior U.N. official, Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari, is due to visit Burma in early November. Gambari was in Burma in May of this year on a special assignment from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.