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Burma's Junta Leader Says He May Relinquish Power in 2010

The head of Burma's military junta, General Than Shwe, says he intends to give up control of the government to whoever wins elections in 2010. However, members of the opposition in Burma doubt the military will allow a transition to civilian rule. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

Burmese general Than Shwe went on national television, Thursday, to mark the country's Armed Forces Day holiday.

A constitutional referendum is scheduled for May, paving the way for multi-party elections in 2010, at which time the general says power will be handed over.

In his speech, he said his government has what he describes as "a sincere aim for developing the country without any cravings for power."

But members of Burma's opposition are expressing doubt that the military has any intention of giving up power to civilians. Veteran opposition politician Thakin Chan Tun indicates it is likely General Than Shwe, who is now 77 years old, will have no choice but to give up power in two years' time, because of his age and health. But he says that does not mean the military will relinquish power.

The politician says the basic principles of the constitution drafted by the military leaders allow for the military to retain control of much of the parliament and key posts in the government. He says the army will be able to continue to rule the country, even if Than Shwe gives up his post.

The military has ruled Burma since a coup in 1962. The military took over virtually every aspect of the Burmese economy, which has gone from being one of the most diverse and prosperous in Southeast Asia to one of the poorest. Despite being rich in natural gas, timber and other resources, per capita income is less than 240 dollars a year.

A spike in fuel prices, last year, triggered mostly peaceful protests by thousands of Buddhist monks and others who demanded reforms.

Government forces used violence to crush the demonstrations and have continued to imprison people suspected of participating in protest activities. United Nations officials say more than 30 people were killed in the crackdown. Others say the figure is probably higher.

The United States and other members of the international community have called on the Burmese leaders to undertake real democratic reforms and open a meaningful dialogue with political opponents, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for years.

Burmese leaders have launched what they call a "road map to democracy," approving a draft constitution that will go before voters in May. Washington has labeled the referendum a sham because it was drafted in a closed process by a hand-picked committee dominated by senior officials of the military government.