Thursday, 1 May 2008

Foreign journalists likely to be barred from referendum

By Nem Davies
Mizzima News

30 April 2008 - New Delhi - Burma's military junta's Ministry of Information has reportedly leaked that foreign journalists will not be invited to cover the upcoming May 10 constitutional referendum.

A Rangoon-based journalist, citing an official from the Ministry of Information, said foreign journalists and media groups will possibly be prevented from reporting on the referendum's proceedings.

"The official said foreign journalists will not be allowed to cover the May referendum. But he did not mention the reasons why and we could not ask him," the journalist told Mizzima.

A Reuters reporter, who has applied for a visa to enter Burma, has had their application kept pending, another journalist in Rangoon commented on condition of anonymity.

"We heard that the Reuters reporter will not be allowed to enter. The case is still pending and no reply has yet been made," explained the journalist.

Similarly, an Indian journalist in New Delhi told Mizzima that several of his friends who applied for visas to cover the referendum have had their initiatives rejected.

"All of their applications for a visa have been denied," said the Indian journalist.

However, an official at the Information and Public Relations Department in Burma's new capital, Naypyitaw, denied claims that applications have been refused.

"I don't know of any such thing. What I know is that we have not stopped issuing visas. Visas are possible not only for journalists but are available for any kind of tourist," the official said.

While foreign journalists are finding difficulties in obtaining Burmese visas, a Rangoon-based journal editor expressed fear that local journalists would not be allowed to freely cover the upcoming referendum either.

"Though the government has announced that journalists and media will be allowed to cover the event, I have a feeling that there will be several restrictions. What we have learned is that the government will place people to take photos of journalists who are covering the event. This could prove intimidating," the editor added.

Meanwhile, sources in Rangoon said the government has ordered all Rangoon-based weeklies to insert the government's campaign logo, which urges people to vote 'Yes' in support of the draft constitution, into their periodicals.

"We have been ordered to put the campaign logo either on the front page, back page or third page," remarked a Rangoon-based editor of a weekly journal.

Junta's U- turn and future Sino-Burma Relation

By Myat Soe
Mizzima News

01 May 2008 - Dishonest Burmese rulers' decision to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting the elections shows that its process leading to a democratic transition in the country is not convincing. The purpose of this decision was that the military regime threatened to ban the NLD and its leadership completely.

This announcement evidently defied the international community by refusing to pursue democratization and national reconciliation. It appeared to be on the verge of a major U-turn, and it was aimed at undermining the on-going regional and international efforts.

Since the September people's movement in 2007, no political tangible result has been achieved. The regime did not free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners which the international community has been urging for. The house arrest of U Tin Oo, the deputy leader of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party was extended. More political prisoners have been locked up. The UN special envoy was not allowed to go back to Burma whenever he needed to follow up on the UNSC resolution. Freedom of press has been prohibited, and citizens have no space to express their views openly and peacefully. In addition, the junta's referendum law released in February 2008 prohibits people from criticizing or campaigning against the referendum process and imposes a penalty of three years in prison. In fact, the regime's lip service to political solutions, buying time, blaming the opposition, and attacking its own citizens will not take the place of substantial reforms and will not resolve the country's problems.

Why does the regime remain deaf to the rest of the world? The reason is the regime had two trump cards in the form of Russia and China at the UNSC. Indeed, China and Russia, as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, can promote or prevent meaningful U.N. action on Burma. Recently, the Burmese military regime agreed to let Russia's Glory International Pte Ltd search for gold and other minerals in the country's northern Kachin State, which borders China. Later, Lt. General Evnevich Valery G from the Russian Defence Ministry followed his visit to Burma. According to reliable sources, the regime is trying to acquire knowledge and nuclear technology from Russia to build nuclear reactors in the country for energy purposes since dealing with North Korea and Iran has been criticized by the neighbours and the international community. Another reason is that the regime is trying to strike a balance with China and find out an alternative source for military supplies. On the other hand, China's interest in Burmese gas and building military bases in Burma's islands are life supports for the ruling regime.

Indeed, Russia and China have ignored many thousands of people in the war zones of Burma who are suffering growing humanitarian crisis for their own self-interests. They never take the burden of the UN for this humanitarian crisis. In doing so, the immoral self-interests will increase threats to Burma's neighbouring countries and the entire region. Currently, more than 4 million people are living in neighbouring countries, and one million people are suffering humanitarian crisis. The recent deaths on 9 April of 54 illegal migrant workers from Burma, who suffocated in the back of a container truck while being smuggled to the Thai resort island of Phuket, highlighted the vulnerability of foreign migrant labourers in Thailand, said UN International Labour Organization (ILO) officials. This tragedy underscored the need to for cooperation to fight against human trafficking, and similar plights in Malaysia, Singapore, India, Bangladesh, and other neighbours. These are obviously evidence that people are suffering humanitarian crisis under military rule. China and Russia should not prevent meaningful U.N. action on Burma. As a consequence, Russia and China will have to pay a huge political price when building a relationship with Burma's future generation.

Yet, Burma's prominent student activists group, widely known as '8.8.88 generation has called for a worldwide boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in response to China's bankrolling of the military junta that rules Burma with guns and threats. The group also joined a growing chorus of critics urging an Olympic boycott over complaints ranging from China's human rights record to its failure to press Sudan to end the Darfur conflict and to resolve the Tibet issue. Certainly, the china involvement with the oppressive military regime of Burma has largely been questioned at the beginning of the Beijing Olympics. Now, the world leaders including Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, UK PM Gordon Brown, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Canada's PM Stephen Harper, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai had considered not attending Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is considering staying away, and U.S. President George W.Bush has not yet committed to attending the opening ceremony.

Certainly, China wants the Beijing Olympics to show off, and the freedom-loving people of Burma, Tibet, and Sudan are not allowed to do that. The voices of one world and one dream have loudly been heard, and it can not be possible that China can continue help to oppress human rights in Tibet, Burma, Darfur and elsewhere and still be considered untouchable for economic reasons.

Now, Burma's regime is going back to a major U turn again, and it is driving the country down a dangerous road. In fact, Burma's military rulers have announced they will hold a referendum on a draft constitution on May 10 and a general election in 2010. However, the opposition groups including 88 generation and the NLD called on the people of Burma to vote 'No' in the ballot boxes to prevent "the country from falling into the depths as a result of the junta's one-sided road-map. By voting 'No' we are not only against the junta's referendum, we want the junta and world to know that the people of Burma do not recognize every step of its road-map or their rule, a statement released by 88 generation group said. The time of casting "No Votes" for the junta's U-turn is near and let us see how the result will affect the Beijing Olympics in political terms. China should not remain deaf to the people of Burma.

The question is: will China defend its policy for the notorious Burmese junta at the UNSC again? Truth to be told, the more China supports Burma's junta, the higher the future relationship of Sino-Burma will be at risk and will cost China dearly in political terms.

(The writer Myat Soe is a former Central Executive Committee member of All Burma Federation of Student Unions (1988) and currently serves as the Research Director of Justice for Human Rights in Burma. He graduated from Indiana University, and earned his MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.)

U Kovida Passes Away

Masoeyein Sayadaw, U Kovida

The Irrawaddy News

Renowned Burmese monk U Kovida passed away peacefully on Tuesday at 13:07 Eastern Standard Time in New York. He was 81 and had been hospitalized that morning suffering from heart disease.

Also known as Masoeyein Sayadaw, U Kovida was a highly respected senior monk who was born in Irrawaddy Division in Burma in 1927.

For 50 years U Kovida was one of the abbots at Masoeyein Monastery, one of the oldest Buddhist schools in Mandalay, where he taught Buddhist literature.

In1990, U Kovida led a patam nikkujjana kamma—an alms boycott of military families—in response to a violent crackdown on Buddhist monks in Mandalay. He was subsequently imprisoned from 1990 to1993.

After the Burmese junta violently cracked down on monk-led protesters in September 2007, U Kovida founded Sasana Moli—the International Burmese Monks Organization—to promote Buddhist monks’ affairs and democracy in Burma.

Since 2001 he had been dividing his time between Burma and New York, where he worked for the Sasana Joti Center.

Pyinnya Jota, a leading member of the All Burma Monks Alliance who fled to Thailand in February, told The Irrawaddy: “Sayadaw respected Buddhist religion, promoted Burmese Buddhism and was a well-known teacher of Buddhism.”

He added, “In his last days, Sayadaw was urging Burmese people to boycott the referendum.”

The ‘Third Force’ in Burmese Politics

The Irrawaddy News

Burmese at home and abroad say they don’t think the junta-backed constitution offers any democratic guarantees, but some have decided to vote in favor of it, anyway, saying that a ‘Yes’ vote could nudge the country towards democratization.

One of those who have taken this stance is Aye Lwin, a student leader in the 1988 popular uprising. He was briefly arrested for demanding democracy in March 1988 and was later arrested again for a business-related offense. He has since done a complete about-face, abandoning his pro-democracy stand in favor of supporting the country’s ruling military regime.

In 2005, he formed the junta-sponsored Union of Burma 88 Generation Students group, set up to counter the better known and almost identically named 88 Generation Students group, founded by Min Ko Naing and other prominent student leaders, some of whom had spent more than a decade in prison.

Aye Lwin claims his group is neither pro-junta nor pro-opposition; it is, he says, part of the “third force” in Burmese politics that is seeking a more pragmatic response to the country’s needs. In 2006, it launched an anti-sanctions campaign, urging Western countries to stop standing in the way of the country’s economic development. More recently, it has reportedly been actively involved in efforts to win support for the military-drafted constitution ahead of the May 10 referendum.

There are others like Aye Lwin, some of them former members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), including elected representatives Soe Lin, Kyi Win and Tin Tun Maung, who have also formed their own “third force group.”

Dissidents who refuse to back the junta’s agenda note that former colleagues usually win hard-to-get business licenses and lucrative contracts soon after undergoing their political conversions.

A well-known journalist in Rangoon, Nay Win Maung, and several other intellectuals, such as Ma Theingi and Khin Zaw Win, have also claimed to occupy the middle ground. According to Rangoon-based journalists, Nay Win Maung has told them that although the junta’s constitution lacks basic democratic foundations, it is better than nothing.

Nay Win Maung also recently called on Aung San Suu Kyi to endorse the constitution to ensure that the NLD is not “disenfranchised.”

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should provide a goodwill gesture by saying ‘Yes’ to the constitution,” he wrote in a letter circulated within a circle of Burmese intellectuals. He claimed that such a gesture would provide junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe with a face-saving way to step down from power.

Nay Win Maung is quite well-connected to the ruling generals—he reportedly has concessions in the timber industry and is also an executive member of Kanbawza Bank, which is closely connected to the junta’s No. 2, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye.

Besides economic rewards, members of the “third force” also enjoy greater freedoms than dissidents. Unlike democratic opposition figures, who are typically forced to remain in exile if they ever leave the country, Nay Win Maung, Ma Theingi and Khin Zaw Win have all been permitted to attend international conferences on Burmese issues in foreign countries, arranged by diplomats in Rangoon.

Tin Maung Than, a well-known Burmese writer now living in the United States, said in his regular Democratic Voice of Burma radio program on April 4 that the “third group” could have a significant impact on the referendum outcome. But others—notably Moe Thee Zun, a prominent former student leader of the 1988 uprising—say that Tin Maung Than is overestimating the influence of the “third force” groups.

“The ‘third force’ is only a few people who claim to be the ‘new elite’ and intellectuals. They are only known among some diplomats,” Moe Thee Zun wrote on his blog.

“Unlike the democracy icons Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing and the 88 Generation Students group, nobody from urban and rural areas of Burma know about the ‘third force.’”

Thakin Chan Tun, a veteran politician in Rangoon, also said that people in Burma don’t know anything about the “third force.” They are the product of a handful of diplomats who want to create a “new political elite,” he said, and would be completely unknown if not for the attention they receive from Burmese radio stations based abroad.

“The Burmese political conflict is between the rulers and the subjected people. The opposition, particularly the NLD, is only a tool of the democracy struggle,” he added.

“During the struggle period, there is no third group. They are merely apologists for the rulers, rather than advocates for the subjected people.”

Burma in the spotlight

May 1, 2008

Bangkok was humming with anti-Burmese sentiment yesterday as local and international human rights organisations took turns to lash out at the military government of Burma and the visit of Prime Minister General Thein Sein to Thailand.

Thai Action Committee for Democracy called on Thailand to halt all major investment in the military-run state until the junta shows that it is committed to democracy. The group also called on the government to use whatever influence it has on the Burmese junta to push the country towards the path of democracy.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a press statement, called Burma's May 10 referendum on a new constitution "a sham process aimed at entrenching the military" in the country's political system.

"The Burmese generals are showing their true colours by continuing to arrest anyone opposed to their sham referendum, and denying the population the right to a public discussion of the merits of the draft constitution," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "International acceptance of this process will be a big step backward."

"The generals expect the Burmese people to just shut up, follow their orders, and approve the draft constitution without any discussion or debate. That's not exactly how democracies are born."

Separately, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) launched a report, "Growing up under Militarisation."

Stephen Hull, one of the authors of the report, said: "Children in Karen State are facing a disastrous collapse of their opportunities for health, education and social development as a direct result of a systematic policy of military control and civilian exploitation by the Burmese junta."

At 174 pages and drawing on over 160 interviews with children, their families and their communities on a wide variety of issues relevant to children's welfare, the report claims to be the most comprehensive account ever produced on children's rights in Burma.

KHRG programme director, Naw Rebecca Dun explained the dismal situation faced by children in areas of Karen State where the State Police and Development Council (SPDC) army is attacking civilians and destroying villages, leading villagers to flee into hiding in the forest where they face malnutrition, disease, landmines and the constant threat of further attacks.

Naw Rebecca Dun has herself witnessed the hardships of such children, during her nearly 20 years teaching in an IDP jungle school.

Breaking down at the memories, she described the lives of these children as "physically, emotionally and mentally scarred".

Nation Multimedia

Hitting the Junta

Celebs are trying a new tactic to win the freedom of Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Can their viral video possibly have an impact?

Watch Video

Myanmar's spoiled vote for democracy

By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - On May 10, Myanmar holds a national referendum on a new constitution, a charter which very few of the military-run country's citizens have actually seen and one which the media and commentators are barred from publicly criticizing in the run-up to the vote. If passed, the charter will move the country into a new political era, though one still firmly controlled by the military.

Myanmar's military rulers are leaving little to democratic chance, as they apply restrictions and processes to orchestrate a "yes" vote, which by most international standards will not be considered a free and fair referendum. To be sure, without opinion polls, public sentiment is hard to gauge in Myanmar's tightly controlled society.

The vote significantly represents the first time since 1990 general elections, which military-backed candidates resoundingly lost to the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), that Myanmar's voters will go to the polls. The military famously annulled the 1990 election results and set in slow motion a 14-year process for drafting a new charter aimed at paving the way for new general elections.

There are competing interpretations of what the vote actually means. Some analysts believe both rural and urban voters, frustrated by the government's severe mismanagement of the country, will overwhelmingly vote "no" as an expression of their discontent.

"They see it as a referendum on the military government; so expect a resounding 'no' from them," said a Western aid worker in reference to rural voters in the country's main central rice growing area. "It's the first opportunity since the 1990 election that they have had to express themselves," she said.

Others view it differently. "I'm going to vote 'yes' because I'm tired of the top brass running the country, and doing it very badly," said a military colonel who wanted to remain anonymous due to concerns over his personal safety. "It's time to get them out of government and a new constitution is the only sure way of doing that," he added.

"You don't need to read the constitution to know its simply conferring power on the military for eternity," said an elderly Burmese academic who likewise wanted to remain anonymous. "The choice is simple - a vote in favor of adopting the constitution means we want the military to play the leading role in politics and run the county," he said.

For its part, the military has repeatedly promised the referendum will be transparent, fair and systematic. Political opposition groups and diplomats, meanwhile, have expressed strong concerns that the results could easily be rigged in the military's favor.

For instance, the regime has already said the results at each polling station will not be announced, even at a provincial level. The only announcement of the vote's result will come from the military's equivalent of an electoral commission in the new capital of Naypyidaw. "This is very different from the 1990 elections, when the election results were made public at each local polling station," said Zin Linn, a former political prisoner and now spokesman for the Burmese government in exile. "It means they will be able to manipulate the results to their own ends."

Adding to those concerns is the fact that the general public, not to mention the political opposition, will not be allowed to scrutinize the actual vote counting. A senior general recently told military and government officials in Yangon that only the last ten voters before the polls close would be allowed to stay and witness the actual count.

"These last 10 voters who can monitor the counting of the votes by the poll commission members will certainly be members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association, who Than Shwe has given the job of running the referendum and getting the result he wants," said Win Min, a Burmese academic at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.

See no evil

Significantly, international election monitors have been banned from overseeing the vote and it is likely that only a few regime-friendly foreign journalists will be given visas to cover the referendum. Foreign monitoring is essential if the referendum is to have any international credibility, the former United Nations rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Paulo Pinheiro, told Asia Times Online in an exclusive interview.

"After decades without an election, at least international observers could verify the conditions of the vote," said Pinheiro, who served in his UN capacity for seven years through April this year. "And the UN has a unit that just deals with elections, but the military government has refused their help."

"I've been following political transitions throughout the world, including Asia for more than 30 years and I am yet to see a successful transition to democracy without a previous phase of liberalism," he said. "There isn't the faintest sign of that yet in the case of Myanmar."

Indeed, state-run newspapers are predictably flush with statements endorsing the new constitution. "To approve the state constitution is a national duty of the entire people, let us all cast a 'yes' vote in the national interest." Meanwhile the local media have been forbidden from reporting the "no" campaign, which has been perpetuated on the Internet and by political opposition groups.

The government has issued orders banning any criticism of the new constitution and violations are punishable with a possible ten-year jail sentence. Those who have dared to defy those orders have come under physical attack by pro-government thugs and at least twenty young NLD members have recently been arrested for wearing T-shirts that read "Vote No".

The NLD has nonetheless launched a vigorous campaign in opposition to the constitution. "For the people who have the right to vote, we would like to encourage again all voters to go to the polling booths and make an 'x' [no] mark without fear," the NLD urged voters in statement released to the press last week. It nonetheless portrayed the process as a sham. "An intimidating atmosphere for the people is created by physically assaulting some of the members of [the] NLD," its statement read.

International observers endorse that assessment. "The whole process is surreal - to have a referendum where only those who are in favor of the constitution can campaign," said Pinheiro in an interview. "A referendum without some basic freedoms - of assembly, political parties and free speech - is a farce. What the Myanmar government calls a process of democratization is in fact a process of consolidation of an authoritarian regime," he said.

The new constitution took more than 14 years to draft, a tightly controlled process that excluded the NLD's participation. The actual constitution was only revealed to the public a few weeks ago and is now on sale at 1,000 kyat per copy - the equivalent of US$1 in a country where more than eight out of 10 families live on less than $2 a day. Even then it's nearly impossible to find copies, according to Western diplomats who in recent days have scoured the old capital of Yangon in search of the document.

Under the proposed constitution the president must hail from the military, while one-quarter of the parliamentary seats will be nominated by the army chief and key ministries under the military's control, including the defense and interior portfolios. According to the charter's text, the army also reserves the right to oust any civilian administration it deems to have jeopardized national security.

NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, will be barred from politics under the charter because she was married to a foreigner, the eminent British academic and scholar of Tibet and Buddhism, Michael Aris, who died of prostate cancer in 1999. Nonetheless, the military is pitching the passage of the new charter as a step towards multi-party democracy, as laid out in the junta's seven-stage roadmap to democracy.

The junta's second in command, General Maung Aye, recently told a parade of new recruits that the constitution would pave the way for democracy. "Comrades, it is the Tatamadaw [military] that is constantly striving for the emergence of a constitution capable of shaping the multi-party democratic system," he told the army recruits last week.

But even if the junta fixes the referendum's results in its favor, it will face other major challenges in the run-up to general elections in 2010. That includes the formation of a transition government, which will entail the wholesale sacking of the current military cabinet, many of whom have entrenched business interests protected by their positions. It also in theory must allow new political parties to be formed and freely associate and campaign to contest the 2010 polls.

These steps will all likely be delayed substantially if there is a significant "no" vote at next week's referendum. While the real vote count may never be made public, top military leaders will know whether or not voters support their envisaged transition to a form of military-led democracy. Depending on how the people vote, a negative result could cause Than Shwe and other top junta officials to yet again redraw their political reform roadmap.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

Asian Times

A vote offers Burma a democratic dilemma

By Amy Kazmin

April 30 2008 (FT)- After nearly three decades of repressive dictatorship and a year and a half after the army killed thousands in the suppression of massive democracy protests, the Burmese went to the polls in May 1990 to vote in their first national multiparty elections in 30 years.

The electorate and the outside world were sceptical. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s slain independence hero and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, had been under house arrest for 11 months. Other top NLD leaders – and important figures from the 1988 uprising – were also under house arrest or in prison. Nearly all campaigning was banned. Most Burmese people doubted the genuine vote count would ever be known.

Events did not play out quite as expected. When the votes were tallied, the Burmese military conceded that Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD had won more than 80 per cent of the vote, a landslide victory. But, stung by the shock result, the generals refused to hand over power, insisting the military first had to oversee the drafting of a new constitution.

In that failure to honour the will of the people lies the root of the Burmese military junta’s crisis of legitimacy. Since then, Burma has been trapped in a paralysing stand-off pitting Ms Suu Kyi, regarded by many Burmese people and western governments as the rightful leader, against Senior General Than Shwe, the junta’s top man, who rejects any political role for her. International calls for a political dialogue between the two – and United Nations efforts to broker such talks – have gone unheeded.

Burma’s 52m people, meanwhile, have been left to fend for themselves in an economy hobbled by all-pervasive military control, and western trade and investment sanctions. Grinding poverty and lack of jobs have driven abroad millions of Burmese, including at least 1.5m to Thailand, who face exploitation from employers and official persecution.

Burmese public frustration at their hardships boiled over in September, when tens of thousands took to the streets led by Buddhist monks to express their desire for change. The army quashed the protests with force, killing at least 31 and arresting thousands – hundreds of whom remain imprisoned.

Now – 18 years after that fateful election – Burma’s population is
again being called to the ballot box. This time, the junta is asking for public endorsement of a new military-backed constitution that it says will lay the foundation for a “discipline-flourishing democracy”, paving the way for new elections in 2010. For many despairing Burmese, people fed up with the poor governance and harsh repression of the past two decades, the referendum poses something of a dilemma.

Many have a strong impulse to vote against the charter, partially because they object to its contents, but more as an act of defiance against their despised rulers. Yet many of these same voters feel that the charter – despite its illiberal nature – offers the only possibility, however faint, of a change from the desperately bleak status quo.

Few voters have illusions about the nature of what is on offer. Inspired by Indonesia’s Suharto-era constitution, the charter explicitly proclaims the army’s leading role in public affairs and reserves 25 per cent of seats in a new national parliament for military appointees. The eligibility criteria for running for office have been designed to exclude Ms Suu Kyi and political exiles from contesting future elections.

Not surprisingly, the NLD, other prominent dissidents and exile groups are urging a public rejection of the constitution, which they say is merely an attempt to legitimise the military’s entrenched rule and to satisfy the junta’s Asian friends by making a show of political reform. These opposition activists argue that the loss of face, both internally and internationally, from a massive No vote could force the generals into the political dialogue with Ms Suu Kyi they have so long resisted.

Yet other Burmese, seeing little realistic likelihood of change coming from other directions, argue that by planting the seeds of new institutions – such as a parliament – and a more complex decision-making structure, the new constitution may bring something, if only an element of unpredictability that could bring new opportunities for opposition groups.

Internal debate on these crucial matters is stifled. State-controlled media relentlessly tout the charter, and voters’ “patriotic duty” to support it, while excluding dissenting voices; Ms Suu Kyi and other prominent dissidents remain locked up and anti-charter campaigning is restricted. Yet the charter is discussed intensely on overseas Burmese-language radio stations, such as the BBC, which are followed avidly in Burma.

It is unlikely that the world will ever really know what Burma’s voters decide, given Gen Than Shwe’s determination to see the charter pushed through. In its turbulent modern history, Burma has never had an orderly handover of power that did not result in the ousted leaders’ imprisonment, impoverishment, exile or worse. Yet Gen Than Shwe apparently sees the charter as a way to ensure that he can step down while protecting his and his family’s financial interests and freedom.

A frustrated Burmese businessman – no fan of the regime – said he wanted to vote No, but to see the constitution adopted. Many seem to share that sentiment and they may, indeed, get their wish.