Burma's political opposition and pro-democracy groups have accused the military government of creating a climate of fear in the lead-up to a referendum that critics say is aimed at extending the military's influence in Burmese politics. Ron Corben has this report from VOA's South East Asia Bureau.
Burma's pro-democracy opposition group, the National League for Democracy, and activists say Burma's military government is carrying out a campaign of harassment and intimidation to ensure strong support for a military supported constitution.
The constitutional referendum, announced earlier this week and scheduled for May 10, is a further step in the military government's road map to democracy that will open the way for fresh general elections.
But in a statement, the National League for Democracy (NLD) said the referendum would not be "free or fair" with the rules in favor of the military. The NLD said while the military is able to campaign openly and without restriction, the party and pro-democracy activists were prevented from doing so.
The NLD, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, said party members were already facing threats of physical assaults. The NLD has already called on voters to reject the poll as it was drafted by the military. It was also written without any input by Burma's opposition.
Debbie Stothardt is the spokeswoman for the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma. She says the military is using the constitutional referendum to extend its power.
"We're seeing a very serious crackdown happening to ensure that nobody votes 'no' in the referendum. We're seeing the military regime setting itself up to rule in perpetuity," she said.
The referendum is set to be adopted if more than half the eligible voters support the document. The charter also ensures that 25 percent of the seats in both houses of parliament go to the military.
The referendum also bans the participation of people who enjoy the rights and privileges of a foreign citizen. The ban is widely believed to specifically target opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was married to a British citizen.
Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.
But Stothardt said despite efforts to intimidate people, many Burmese are willing to actively campaign against the new the constitution.
"Definitely the regime is going to try to tighten the screws, especially since various communities around Burma have actually embarked on a 'no' campaign. Activists are wearing 'no' t-shirts, they are sending out leaflets," she said.
Burma's military has already rejected an offer by the United Nations special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, for international observers to oversee the voting process. The military said such a move would be an infringement of the country's national sovereignty.
The referendum is expected to be closely watched by the international community with the military government under pressure to press on with political reforms following a violent crackdown against pro-democracy protests last September. The United Nations says at least 31 people died and thousands were arrested by the military.