/ 4 January 2008

Burma defiant on 60th anniversary of independence

Military-run Burma put on a show of defiance on Friday on the 60th anniversary of independence from Britain amid global pressure for reform following the junta’s bloody crackdown on dissent.

Soldiers raised the national flag at precisely 4.28am local time — the exact moment of freedom from Britain — at a pre-dawn ceremony at a city hall in the remote capital of Naypyidaw, 400km north of Yangon.

The junta’s leader, Senior General Than Shwe, was absent from the brief ceremony, but called on the country to go ahead with the regime’s ”road map” to democracy in a message read out in front of 5 000 officials and soldiers.

The 74-year-old ruler urged people ”to cooperate in realising the state’s seven-step road map with union spirit, patriotic spirit and the spirit of sacrifice”.

Under the junta’s ”road map”, Burma will adopt a constitution in a referendum which, in theory, would eventually lead to free elections in a country that has been ruled by the military since 1962.

But the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have dismissed the road map as a sham due to the absence of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party from the process.

Analysts have also said a new charter will only serve to formalise the military’s role in the government.

”The new constitution ensures the military will continue to play a big role in government,” said Win Min, a Thailand-based Burma academic.

”Than Shwe was basically telling the international community that the junta has its own plan for ‘military-controlled’ democracy,” Win Min said.

The independence anniversary came as the regime faces mounting pressure for democratic reform amid tightening Western sanctions after its crackdown on peaceful protests, led by Buddhist monks, in September 2007.

The UN has found that at least 31 people were killed during the suppression, and 74 remain missing.

Protests began after a sudden hike in fuel prices in August that left many people in this impoverished nation unable even to afford the bus fare to work, and snowballed into the biggest threat to the junta in nearly 20 years.

Despite the growing international pressure, Than Shwe was defiant in his message on Friday, saying the road map was vital for turning Burma into ”a discipline-flourishing democratic nation”.

The junta leader made no reference to the September violence in his message and also made no mention of independence hero General Aung San, who is best known overseas as the father of Aung San Suu Kyi.

”Than Shwe did not want to mention Aung San only because of Aung San Suu Kyi. If he glorified the role of Aung San, in a sense, he was also glorifying Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Sean Turnell, an expert on Burma at Australia’s Macquarie University.

”It’s like America celebrating the Fourth of July without mentioning Washington,” he said, referring to the first US president, George Washington.

In Yangon, Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), held its own independence ceremony at its headquarters, drawing about 300 supporters under the watchful eyes of 50 plainclothes security officers.

The NLD issued a statement calling for the release of its leader and all 1 100 political prisoners in Burma.

The Nobel peace prize winner has spent 12 years under house arrest for her efforts to end decades of military dictatorship.

In the wake of the September crackdown, the junta appointed Labour Minister Aung Kyi to liaise with her in an apparent bid to ease international pressure on the junta.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta’s middleman have so far held three meetings, but since their last talks on November 19, no further date has been set. Details of their meetings have not been disclosed.

Aung San Suu Kyi led the NLD to victory in elections in 1990, but the junta has never recognised the result. — AFP.