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Burma's Military Government Adjourns Constitution Convention

31 January 2006

Burma's military government has adjourned a constitutional convention that the government says is aimed at bringing democracy to the country after decades of military rule. The convention had been meeting for the past two months at a retreat outside Rangoon.

Delegates to the National Convention, which had been meeting behind closed doors, said the chairman and senior member of the ruling military junta, Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, announced the adjournment Tuesday. He was quoted as saying it would resume later this year.

General Thein Sein opened the convention in early December, saying it was part of a seven-step road map aimed at bringing democracy to the country. He says the convention is the first and most crucial of the steps, which must be followed in order to achieve a genuine and disciplined democracy.

The 1,000 delegates from various ethnic groups and sectors of society spent the next eight weeks discussing the relationship between national and regional assemblies under the new constitution, the role of the military in government, and fundamental rights and duties of citizens.

The Burmese military first convened the national convention in 1993, three years after national elections, which were won by the National League for Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi but whose results were never implemented.

N.L.D. representatives attended the convention in the mid-1990's, but later walked out, saying the process was being controlled by the military.

A spokesman for the N.L.D., Nyan Win, says the national convention, or N.C., is not legitimate because its delegates are handpicked and many independent political leaders are not attending.

"Now we have no connection to NC," he said. "We want [that] the NC must be democratic procedures and ways and means."

Critics say the constitution, which is more than half completed, guarantees the military a major role in government, and excludes many dissidents from politics.

A professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, Chaiyachoke Chulasiriwongs, says as a result, the constitution is not likely to be recognized by the international community. "The work of the National Convention from the start is not in good faith," said Chaiyachoke. "Therefore, we shouldn't expect too much out of it."

However, he says the convention shows that the Burmese government is determined to carry out its road map to democracy.

The convention reopened amid international frustration with the slow pace of reform in Burma.

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, of which Burma is a member, in December urged the Burmese government to take tangible steps toward reform. They also announced they would send a representative, Malaysia's Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, to Rangoon.

Mr. Syed said he was prepared to go in January, but the Burmese government said it was too busy to see him. The foreign ministers of Cambodia and Singapore last week urged the government to make the postponement a short one.

Indonesia, which has also urged greater moves toward reform, recently announced that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would soon visit Rangoon.

The diplomatic moves follow a decision by the United Nations Security Council to hold a briefing on what was termed the deteriorating situation in Burma.

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