/ 10 February 2008

Burma’s junta sets timetable for polls

Burma’s military junta unveiled a timetable for the country’s first elections in two decades, but it was unclear on Sunday if detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be allowed to stand.

The surprise weekend announcement of a constitutional referendum in May to set the stage for elections in 2010 appeared to catch her National League for Democracy (NLD) off guard.

If held, the elections would be the first since 1990, when her NLD swept to victory — only for the military to refuse to accept the result.

Western nations have been piling pressure on the hard-line regime to reform since it bloodily suppressed mass pro-democracy protests in September.

The rallies, spearheaded by Buddhist monks, posed the biggest challenge to military rule in nearly 20 years, and the United Nations estimates at least 31 people were killed in the ensuing crackdown.

Thailand-based Burma analyst Win Min said the junta was trying to defuse both international pressure and lingering domestic tensions by announcing its timetable.

The junta ”may worry about possible mass movements again, so this is to cool down the people not to do demonstrations”, he said.

The official New Light newspaper devoted its front page on Sunday to a warning from senior junta leader Than Shwe.

He accused unnamed ”destructive elements” of trying ”to constantly hinder and sabotage our development tasks” and also urged the public to ”always remain vigilant against these elements and ward off the dangers posed by them”.

The military announcement on state media did not give an exact date for the May referendum or the 2010 elections.

The junta has yet to unveil the final version of its proposed constitution, but the guidelines produced by the secretive convention that drafted the text appear to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

One clause forbids anyone married to foreigners from standing — Aung San Suu Kyi was married to Briton Michael Aris, who died in 1999.

Another clause requires the president to have a ”military vision” of state affairs.

The charter would also reserve one quarter of all seats in Parliament for serving officers, who would be appointed by the commander-in-chief.

The NLD, which boycotted the final sessions of the constitutional talks to protest Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, said it was surprised the military had set an election date before knowing the outcome of the referendum.

”How can they know if it will be a success? It is still early to talk about an election,” NLD spokesperson Nyan Win said.

Former colonial power Britain gave a guarded response to the announcement, noting that Burma continued to detain key political leaders and the election process was decided without any consultation.

”The transition to democracy in Burma requires the participation of all political stakeholders,” a Foreign Office spokesperson in London said.

”The military rulers should release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners without delay. Together they should work on the road to democracy and a secure future for Burma.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been confined to her home for 12 of the last 18 years, was under house arrest at the time of the 1990 election victory.

The junta, ignoring the result of that election, instead opened a National Convention to draft a new constitution.

After 14 years of fitful talks, the convention wrapped up its work in early September, and it is that constitution which is up for referendum. — AFP