Burmese junta starts committee for constitution

Burma’s ruling junta on Thursday night announced the formation of a Constitution Drafting Commission, another step in the government’s “road map” to democracy that is supposed to lead to free elections some time in the future.

State radio and television said the 54-member committee will be chaired by Chief Justice Aung Toe, with the country’s Attorney General, Aye Maung, serving as vice-chairperson. A number of other officials and retired doctors and professors were also named to the body.

The move came after the junta brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations last month, jailing thousands and killing 10 protesters, by its own account. Critics of the regime say the actual death toll may be closer to 200.

The government insists it will make democratic reforms only according to its own seven-step plan.
The announcement came as the junta faces a barrage of international pressure to hold talks with its political opponents, including detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party won a 1990 general election, but was not allowed to take power by the military.

So far, only the road map’s first stage—drawing up guidelines for the new constitution—has been completed, and that took more than a decade. Critics say the plan is a ruse to allow the military to cling to power.

In 1989, the military junta officially changed the English version of its name from Burma to Myanmar. Burmese opposition groups continue to use the name “Burma” since they do not recognise the legitimacy of the ruling military government nor its authority to rename the country.

Incentives

The UN’s special envoy for Burma, meanwhile, suggested on Thursday that the country’s military rulers be offered incentives to move toward democratic reforms.

UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, visiting Indonesia on a six-nation tour to press Asia to take the lead to resolve the Burma crisis, also said China—the junta’s top ally—could “continue to do more to really move the authorities in Myanmar” along the path of change.

“We are going to continue to see China as an ally,” he told reporters.

Gambari said one approach could be “a combination of strong encouragement of the authorities in Myanmar to do the right thing along with some incentives to say that ... the world is not there just to punish Myanmar”.

He did not elaborate, but his remarks come as the EU and countries such as the United States are widening sanctions imposed on the country.

Gambari met junta leader Senior General Than Shwe in Burma earlier this month—and twice met Suu Kyi—but he has so far failed to bring about a dialogue between the two sides.

The UN envoy is supposed to return to Burma in November, but has said he hopes he can move the date up. He has already visited Thailand and Malaysia, and will also stop in Japan, India and China.

The junta said on Wednesday it detained nearly 3 000 people in connection with the protests, adding that hundreds remain in custody and that it is still hunting for others.

But the regime released the country’s best-known comedian, as well as a popular actor and his wife who had been taken into detention last month for openly supporting the anti-government demonstrations.

Relatives and entertainment sources said on Thursday that Zarganar, famed for his satirical jibes against the government, and actor Kyaw Thu along with his wife were released on Wednesday. Zarganar had been held since September 26, and Kyaw Thu and his wife were arrested on October 10.

Deaths and torture

London-based Amnesty International said on Wednesday that an increasing number of reports from Burma tell of deaths, torture, lack of food and medical treatment in overcrowded detention facilities across the country.

“The current arbitrary arrests, secret detention and widespread reports of ill-treatment and torture make a mockery of promises made by the Myanmar authorities to cooperate with the United Nations ... for early release of all political prisoners,” a statement from the human rights group said.

The junta, meanwhile, continued its propaganda offensive against the pro-democracy movement. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported on Thursday that 48 blocks of TNT were found last week after investigations by authorities that led to U Kovida, a 23-year-old monk at Yangon’s Nan Oo monastery.

He reportedly hid the explosives in the monastery and then moved them to another location, where they were found.

The state media have circulated many stories seeking to discredit or denigrate the pro-democracy demonstrators, most of whom were non-violent. It earlier described finding pornography and other unsuitable material in monks’ quarters of monasteries that had been raided.

Gambari’s suggestion of incentives is not a new one. In 1998, the UN and World Bank held secret talks with Burma’s government and opposition leaders to offer the junta $1-billion in financial and humanitarian aid if it would open a dialogue with the opposition.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also said this week that economic support could be given to Burma if it opened a dialogue with its opponents, including Suu Kyi.—Sapa-AP

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