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Burma Remains Committed to Draft New Constitution, says FM - 2004-02-09

Burma's military government says it remains committed to resuming efforts this year on drafting a new constitution. Comments by Burma's Foreign Minister are seen in neighboring Thailand as further progress along the democracy "road map" Rangoon unveiled last year.

Although Foreign Minister Win Aung says Burma intends to resume multiparty talks on a new constitution this year, he gave no details about when national elections might be held.

He also did not indicate when members of the opposition National League for Democracy might be released from detention. Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains confined to her residence in Rangoon. She and several senior NLD members were detained last May.

The foreign minister made the comments Monday while attending a conference in Thailand.

The NLD, Mr. Win Aung says, has not yet indicated if it will participate in the constitutional convention. But reports say there is official contact between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military government.

Burma's government last year announced a "road map" toward democratic reforms and drafting a new constitution. The NLD had walked out of the constitutional convention in 1995 after complaining of government interference.

Burma has come under considerable international pressure over the past year to restart the convention and make progress on national reconciliation.

Mr. Win Aung said the government had already held talks with ethnic minority and opposition groups to join the constitutional convention.

In Thailand, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sihasak Puangketkeow, said there are signs Burma is making progress toward political reform. "I think we have a clear understanding of the time frame for the convening of a national convention," he said, "and we do believe there will be positive, further positive developments very soon."

But human rights groups and foreign diplomats in Rangoon remain cautious. Offices of the NLD have been closed for months and as many as one thousand party members are in prison.

Diplomats say it is important for the NLD to participate in drafting the constitution. The party won national elections in 1990, but the military government never allowed it to take office, and jailed most of its leaders for years.

Debbie Stothard, a spokeswoman for the human rights watchdog Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, says political dialogue is necessary for the convention to go ahead. "Before a national convention [can] be reconvened there actually has to be a political dialogue by all parties concerned to ensure that the convention actually does what it is supposed to," she said.

Ms. Stothard says the NLD's status as a legal political party must be restored, and the government must work harder to talk with various ethnic minorities to ensure national reconciliation.