Myanmar election announcement greeted with scepticism

( dpa ) - Myanmar media on Sunday reconfirmed the ruling junta's decision to hold a national referendum on a new constitution in May, 2008, followed by a general election in 2010, a development that has been greeted with scepticism by the regime's critics.

The two announcements, dated February 9 and signed by the junta's First Secretary Lieutenant General Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo, were published in full in The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a government mouthpiece.

The first announcement, No. 1/2008, noted that the government, after completing a draft of a new constitution some time soon, will hold a national referendum in May, as the fourth step in its seven-step road map to democracy.

The second edict, No. 2/2008, concluded, "After making all the necessary actions, the government thinks that the state power should change from a military government to civil government so a multi-party general election will be held in 2010 in accordance with the new state constitution."

While both announcements appear to put Myanmar, also called Burma, on the path to democracy, their proclamation was greeted with great scepticism by observers familiar with the regime.

"It's part of their game to divert international pressure on them to hold a dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others," said Win Min, a Myanmar scholar and lecturer at Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. In 1988 the military brutally cracked down on a mass pro-democracy movement, leaving an estimated 3,000 people dead, and then again in September, troops suppressed peaceful anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks, leaving at least 31 dead.

Since September, Myanmar's junta, called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has been under mounting pressure to open a political dialogue with Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition figues to put the country on the path to democracy.

SPDC chief Senior General Than Shwe, while claiming to be willing to talk to Suu Kyi, has gone ahead with the junta's so-called seven-step road map to democracy which includes drafting a constitution, having it approved by a referendum and holding an election, although previously no dates were set.

Myanmar's last referendum was held in 1974 to get the populace's approval of the country's second constitution, which enshrined the rule of the Burma Socialist Party under military supervision.

"It seems the military now feels confident that they can control a referendum the same way they controlled the 1974 referendum, when state authorities basically switched the no votes to yes votes to pass the constitution," Win Min said.

But he cautioned that a sham referendum might lead to another outbreak of civil unrest similar to the September protests, which were partly prompted by the deteriorating economic situation.

"They are taking a big risk, because the opposition can now use the referendum as a new flashpoint," Win Min said.

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