Final Charter Meeting Begins in Myanmar

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

NYAUNG-HNA-PIN, Myanmar – Myanmar’s military government opened Wednesday what it says will be the final session of a national convention aimed at completing a process launched 14 years ago to draw up guidelines for a new constitution.

Critics call the proceedings a sham because the junta hand-picked most of the delegates and because pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi _ currently under house arrest _ cannot attend.

The meeting aims to complete the first stage of what the junta has called a seven-step “road map” to democracy that is supposed to culminate in free elections, although no timetable has been announced.

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In his opening speech, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, the acting prime minister, called the convention the most important part of the road map, and urged delegates not to try to amend points previously agreed to.

“Since this is the last session, delegates are asked to review the principles … without deviating from the already agreed guidelines,” he said.

Thein Sein, also the chairman of the National Convention Convening Commission, said most of the population supports the convention, but that a small “negative-looking group” opposes it.

He warned that legal action will be taken against anyone who tries to derail the process.

The convention, meeting after a seven-month hiatus, could take about a month and a half to complete, Information Minister Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan said.

More than 1,000 delegates from across the country gathered at the Nyaung-Hna-Pin convention center, about 25 miles north of the commercial capital Yangon, for the meeting.

Myanmar, formerly called Burma, has been without a constitution since 1988, when the current junta took power and suspended a 1974 charter.

The guidelines set by the national convention are to be used in writing a new constitution, but the junta has not publicly said who will draft the charter.

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, has boycotted the convention to protest her continued detention and that of other NLD leaders.

The final session is to adopt guidelines for the remaining seven of the constitution’s 15 chapters, and make some changes to previously approved parts.

“The government did not make it clear what changes will be made, but we view this as a positive move,” Han Tha Myint, an NLD spokesman, told The Associated Press on Tuesday, referring to the planned completion of the first stage of the roadmap.

Han Tha said the party has asked the government to amend some of the constitution’s 104 basic principles and six objectives, one of which guarantees a major role for the military in Myanmar’s political future.

Some critics say the finished document is not likely to usher in promised democratic reforms or protect the rights of minority groups. Other critics say the whole process has been a stalling strategy to prolong the junta’s grip on power.

Ethnic minority groups have complained the adopted principles would give the central government greater powers, even though their delegates have demanded equal rights and greater administrative and judicial powers. Many minorities have been seeking greater autonomy for decades.

In all, 17 armed ethnic minority rebel groups have reached cease-fire agreements with the junta since 1989. Some surrendered their arms, but a few kept their weapons to take care of their area’s security.

Most of the groups had asked the government to allow them to keep their armed units as a police or guard force, but the point has not yet been addressed in the charter guidelines.

“We have to wait and see the outcome of the National Convention. We have requested the government to make appropriate arrangements for our soldiers, but the role of our armed group is not yet clear under the new constitution,” said Naing Tin Hla, a member of the New Mon State Party who is attending the convention as an observer.

The junta first convened the convention in 1993, but aborted it in 1996 after NLD delegates walked out saying it was undemocratic and that the military was manipulating the proceedings. The process was resurrected in 2004.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been in prison or under house arrest for more than 12 of the past 18 years.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)