- General says he will hand over power after election
- Regime pledges free vote on draft constitution
March 28, 2008 - Burma's military leader yesterday urged citizens to join with the armed forces to crush "destructive elements" said to be trying to destabilise the isolated nation. During a rare public appearance, Than Shwe also insisted he would not cling to power at any cost but honour the victors of the general election due in 2010.
In a nationally televised 15-minute speech to mark the annual Armed Forces Day holiday, the reclusive Than Shwe, 75, made several references to May's referendum on the draft constitution that will pave the way for the poll.
Critics have denounced the draft constitution, part of the junta's seven-step "road map to democracy", as a ruse to consolidate the military's power. Opponents of the regime, such as the National League for Democracy, led by the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, were excluded from the drafting process, which took 14 years.
However, the information minister, Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, yesterday said the government would try to ensure a "free and fair" vote, though the new constitution was not yet fully published.
Before an audience of diplomats and senior Burmese military, at a venue in the new capital, Naypyidaw, Than Shwe confounded rumours of failing health by standing for an hour in the tropical heat to review 13,000 troops, police and fire brigades. He made no mention of the suppression of the uprising six months ago when at least 31 people died after soldiers opened fire on monks and pro-democracy protesters. But in an oblique allusion that betrayed fear of further unrest, he pressed the armed forces to "join hands with the people to crush internal and external destructive elements sabotaging stability and progress of the state".
He said the military leadership that had ruled Burma for 45 years now had "a sincere aim for developing the country without any cravings for power". He added: "The draft constitution has been completed and the constitutional referendum will be held in May. Handing over of state power can be done after multi-party elections ... in 2010."
The secrecy surrounding May's constitutional referendum, threats of imprisonment for anyone campaigning against it, and the rejection of a UN offer of international monitors and technical help, have fuelled suspicion over the legitimacy of the voting process.
Meanwhile an underground campaign against the plebiscite has been distributing leaflets and flyers. One T-shirt slogan passes itself off as a public health message, shouting "NO" with the word "smoking" printed discreetly beneath.
Gen Kyaw Hsan, briefing local media ahead of Armed Forces Day, insisted the new constitution, which reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military, was a good starting point. "Something is better than nothing," he said. "Having a constitution is better than having no constitution. Once we have something, we can improve it gradually step by step."
Source: The Guardian