Friday, 2 May 2008

Organize now against oppression in Burma

We never hear much about Burma, officially known today as Myanmar, until it's too late. Take, for example, last fall. Crimson-robed monks marched peacefully in the streets of Rangoon, making the case for democratic reforms and human rights.

The monks' nonviolent approach and well-argued appeals were met by beatings, imprisonment and even death -- not all that surprising from a country whose military dictatorship has ruled with an iron fist. Burma -- a country roughly the size of Texas and with a population of some 50 million people -- manages to put some of the better-known human rights violators to shame.

But when those powerful images dropped off the front pages of newspapers and news sites, they also seemed to drop from our consciousness.

That is unconscionable. Under the current junta, the regime has perpetrated a coordinated program of ethnic cleansing that relies on rape as a weapon of terror, while destroying more than 3,200 villages (displacing far more than 1 million people) and conscripting more than 70,000 child soldiers (putting it literally at the top of the list for any country).

In the meantime, Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightfully elected leader of Burma, whose party won 82 percent of the seats in Parliament, has spent roughly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. Rather than transforming her nation through her vision and a commitment to nonviolent change, she has been unjustly imprisoned.

So why am I writing this now, when the world's attention is on issues like the tragedy unfolding in Darfur or the fight for political independence in Tibet? The simple answer is that as important as those two issues are -- and they both are of the utmost importance and are deserving of a great deal of our support and attention -- there is something so simple about the issues in Burma.

Among other things, there is fact that the Suu Kyi has the distinction of being the only Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was prevented from ever accepting her prize. She earned another honor on April 24, when she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Congress.

What can we do? About a month ago, my friend Jack Healey, a former Franciscan priest, told me about his idea to create a new kind of celebrity-based public service announcement to take the case for Burma to the public. Healey is no beginner when it comes to mobilizing big names. I met him nearly 20 years ago when he was executive director of Amnesty International in the United States. At the time, he had pulled together some of the biggest artists of the decade -- Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Police, Peter Gabriel -- to embark on a world tour intended to raise the issue of human rights and to put Amnesty International in the public consciousness.

Healey and Jeremy Woodrum, who runs the U.S. Campaign for Burma, have devoted their lives to fighting for the people of Burma, trying to rescue the country from the overbearing grip of a military junta and a violent dictator.

I volunteered to help. In the last month, we've managed to put together a campaign of 30 television and Internet spots, shot by and starring some of Hollywood's biggest names, with the hope that their messages will reach not only millions of Americans but also the rank-and-file soldiers in Burma, who may not even realize how closely the world is looking at the atrocities many of them are carrying out on everyday citizens and, especially, monks.

Our campaign relies on internationally recognized athletes, actors, directors, writers and musicians to address what is happening today in Burma. We are running the spots on our Web site (, as well as a host of other online distribution sites, trying to drive a million people to sign a virtual petition at

We have just finished marking Passover, a holiday that demands of us to both celebrate our freedom and fight for the oppressed. It is incumbent on all of us who live in this great country, who have been blessed with the freedoms of democracy, religious tolerance and equal rights for all, to do anything we can to ensure that others -- be they within our own communities or on the other side of the world -- enjoy those same freedoms.

We are, as I heard Rabbi Elazar Muskin say over Pesach, a "people of hope." That sense of hope not only allows us to dream of a better and more just world but also obligates us to do what we can to make those conditions a reality. May all of our efforts help achieve those goals for Suu Kyi and the people of Burma and for all oppressed people, wherever they may be.

Dan Adler is the Founder and CEO of Fanista, which is co-producing and sponsoring the entire "Burma: It Can't Wait" campaign, in partnership with the Human Rights Action Center ( and the U.S. Campaign for Burma (

Jewish Journal

Meeting over referendum continues in Waingmaw


Mobilising the people for the forthcoming referendum to approve the constitution continues briskly by the Burmese military junta authorities in Waingmaw Township (Wai Maw) in Kachin State, northern Burma, a source said.

Waingmaw Township Peace and Development Council (TPDC or Ma-Ya-Ka) and members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) held a meeting on April 29 at the government primary school in Nam Wa village to get people to approve the draft constitution. Over 200 people above the age of 18 attended the meeting, a participant told KNG.

The meeting was called by U Min Kyi, USDA member and the head of the organizers for the referendum in Waingmaw, a participant added.

According to a participant, U Min Kyi told them that the drafted constitution was the best and it was not compiled by one person. It was put together by all the representatives of each state and division and it reflects the people's desire. Therefore, the people have to cast the "Yes" vote.

On the other hand, Salang Bawm Ying, a member of referendum commission also told the meeting in tribal language that this was not the time to explain the draft constitution. The people should go to the polling booths and cast the "Yes" vote.

The referendum meeting by the Waingmaw TPDC was also held in Washong village in Waingmaw Township the same day.

Burmese Biofuel Policy a Debacle: Report

The Irrawaddy News

A plan by Burma’s ruling military for large-scale growing of a promising but little-tested biofuel crop has turned into an agricultural debacle, activists linked with the exile-based opposition alleged in a report on Thursday.

The 48-page report, "Biofuel by Decree: Unmasking Burma's Bio-energy Fiasco," was produced by the Ethnic Community Development Forum, a self-described alliance of seven community development organizations from Burma.

Though not directly political, the groups are all associated with the exile-based opposition to Burma’s military government.

The fiercely critical report, which says the biofuel policy hurts an already ailing agriculture industry, comes as biofuels draw intense scrutiny over whether their benefits in replacing petroleum fuels offset the resources they take from food production.

The forum said the report is based on government documents and press accounts, as well as 131 interviews carried out in all seven states of Burma between November 2006 and April 2006.

"A draconian campaign by Burma's military to grow 8 million acres of the Jatropha curcas tree for biofuel production is resulting in forced labor and land confiscation throughout the country, while evidence of crop failure and mismanagement expose the program as a fiasco," alleges the report.

It recounts how the leader of the Burmese junta, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, in December 2005 publicly ordered the campaign to plant the jatropha crop—better known as physic nut.

The five-year plan was to plant the crop across 202,000 hectares of each state and division in the country, a total of 3,237,000 hectares—an area roughly the size of Belgium.

The report charges that "farmers, civil servants, teachers, schoolchildren, nurses and prisoners have been forced to purchase seeds, fulfill planting quotas and establish biofuel plantations in service to the 'national cause."'

"They must plant the trees along roadsides, in housing, school and hospital compounds, in cemeteries and religious grounds, and on lands formerly producing rice," it says.

It alleges that people "have been fined, beaten, and arrested for not participating," and that food security is being threatened because physic nut is being planted on land usually used for stable crops.

The crop has promise as a biofuel, with greater yields of oil per hectare than other biofuels and one-fifth the carbon emissions. But poor management has doomed efforts to use it in Burma, where the yield so far appears to have been too low to be of much use, the report says.

Some 800 refugees who fled to Thailand from Burma’s Shan State have even cited the program as the reason for fleeing their country, the report says.

"It will not be successful," said one farmer quoted in the report. "You see, the soldiers carry guns. They don't know anything about agriculture."

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has suggested biofuel crops may be causing shortages of food staples and rises in food prices.

An e-mailed request for comment sent to the Burmese government spokesperson was not answered before release of the report.

However, in January 2006, according to the report, Agriculture Minister Col Aung Thaung said the production of physic nut for biodiesel was the only way Burma could cope with a chronic oil shortage.

Burma in the past few years has become a major producer of natural gas, but lacks the infrastructure to make efficient use of it and instead exports it for desperately needed foreign reserves.

Than Shwe Urges Workers to Vote ‘Yes’

The Irrawaddy News-AP

Burma's junta chief urged workers on Thursday to approve a draft constitution in the upcoming referendum while the main opposition party implored them to reject the document, which critics call a sham intended to cement military rule.

In his May Day message appearing in The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, Snr-Gen Than Shwe said workers should approve the proposed charter in the May 10 referendum because labor groups participated in drafting it.

The charter "was drawn in accordance with the guidelines laid down by the National Convention, which was participated in by delegates of workers," Than Shwe was quoted as saying in the state-run newspaper.

A military-managed national convention was held intermittently for 14 years to lay down guidelines for the country's new constitution. The junta's hand-picked delegates included those representing workers.

The new constitution is supposed to be followed in 2010 by a general election. Both votes are elements of a "roadmap to democracy" drawn up by the junta.

Meanwhile, the country's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, urged workers and farmers to vote against the draft.

"The proposed constitution mentions very little about the rights of workers and farmers," the NLD statement said.

The NLD earlier said the draft charter was written unilaterally by those hand-picked by the military government and would not guarantee democratic and human rights.

Dissidents inside the country as well as exiled groups have urged voters to reject the constitution, saying it is merely a ploy to perpetuate more than four decades of military rule.

Opponents have staged scattered, mostly low-profile protests against the draft charter, but harassment of pro-democracy activists and restrictions on freedom of speech have made a mass movement difficult.

The government has launched an aggressive campaign in the state-controlled media with songs, cartoons, articles and slogans urging voters to approve the constitution.

The draft constitution guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and allows the president to hand over all power to the military in a state of emergency.

It also bans anyone who has enjoyed the rights and privileges of a foreign county from holding public office—a rule that would keep Suu Kyi out of government because her late husband was British.

Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, is under house arrest and has been detained for 12 of the past 18 years.

Burma held its previous general election in 1990. Suu Kyi's party won, but the military refused to hand over power.

The international community increased pressure on the junta after it violently quashed peaceful mass protests last September. At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained.

Burma's Political Transition Needs People Power

The Irrawaddy News

The notion of political transition initiated by a country’s elite has been a dominant discourse in Burmese politics since the late 1990s. The model advocates that a peaceful transition can be facilitated by negotiations between the regime’s “doves” and opposition moderates. It would involve the opposition initiating a concrete proposal to the military in order to persuade the latter to sit at the negotiating table.

This political strategy gained currency in the early 2000s since it coincided with the political ascendancy of former Intelligence Chief Gen Khin Nyunt. At the time, talks between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta seemed to offer a glimmer of hope. However, simultaneously, the opposition movement was losing its strength in "people power" campaigns, such as the unsuccessful Four Nines (September 9, 1999) Mass Movement, and in armed struggles due to ethnic armies signing ceasefire agreements and the fall of the Karen National Union stronghold in 1992.

Any optimism in Burmese politics is never sustained for long. However, the transitional model remained popular as the only way out for the Burmese people. Proponents claimed there was "No alternative!"

"Many diplomats who we met always encouraged and even pressured us to initiate a proposal to the regime," said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). "In fact the party has always called for dialogue and has always been ready to negotiate."

In early 2006, the NLD proposed a transitional plan urging the junta to convene parliament with the winners of the 1990 elections in return for giving the regime recognition as an interim executive power holder. Though the party's call for a negotiated transition was rejected by the regime, the opposition forces—including the 92 MP-elects from the 1990 election and notable veteran politicians—continued to offer flexible transitional packages to the junta. None of them worked.

The proponents of the transition model often downplay the role of public action and mass movement. Some believe it will not happen because more than 20 percent of the population has been born since the uprising in 1988 and are therefore much less affected by the people’s power movement of those times. Others worry that mass movement could be counterproductive to a possible negotiated transition—often the momentum of a protesting crowd will spiral out of control and threaten the careful process of negotiation. They all conclude that the army doesn't respond to public pressure.

Then, all of the sudden, the September protests broke out. The so-called “experts” and “policymakers” failed to see it coming. In the wake of the crackdown, UN-led mediation efforts were revived and Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his generals, once again, were called on to sit at the negotiating table. And once again they declined.

The question now to the advocates of the elite-driven transition model is what to do when the regime refuses to negotiate with the opposition? What it is to be done when the military insist on a referendum to approve a constitution that will allow the perpetuation of military rule in the country?

Almost all supporters of the model say the people of Burma must accept whatever offer the junta makes. They say "something is better than nothing." Some suggested using the generals’ flawed model of democracy as a starting point from which to pursue a more acceptable long-term solution.

"We must give consideration to possible generation change within the military," said Harn Yawnghwe, a well-know lobbyist and director of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma office. "The new blood of the army must have options available on the table when their time comes. This constitution and referendum, though they are flawed, can give reform options to a new generation of military officers. It will create a new dynamic for the country to get out of the current deadlock."

That’s why many advocates of the elite-initiated transition advise the Burmese public to accept the constitution and hope it will lead to amendments with the objective of the military's gradual withdrawal from politics at a later period.

Tun Myint Aung, a leader of 88 Generation Students group, disagrees.

"It is such disgraceful advice. The so-called experts and policy makers are pushing our people to live in slavery," he said from his hideout in Burma. "We do not accept the military's constitution; not because we don't want gradual transition, but because the constitution is too rigid to make any change possible. The military holds a veto over any amendments."

Critics said it is now clear—after a series of rejected proposals from oppositions groups and the UN—that rather than political carrots, it is much more likely that effective public action will compel the new military generation to choose the path to reform.

"Unless a mass movement challenges the corrupted military leadership, divisions within the military will not surface," said Kyaw Kyaw, head of the Political Defiant Committee under the National Council of Union of Burma, the umbrella opposition group in exile. "Besides lacking local and international legitimacy, the corrupt leadership is now losing its loyalty from within military ranks since the September protest. In a historical Burmese context, public action, or mass movement, has played a decisive role ever since the struggle for independence to the 1988 democracy uprising to the monk-led protests last September. It will continue to do so until we gain a genuine resolution."

In fact, only when mass movement with strategic leadership rises up against the current military top brass, then the elite’s calculations, regime defection and international pressure will become relevant issues in facilitating a negotiated transition. In other words, political transition is not likely to take place within a framework of proposed constitutional means. Even amendments to the constitution with the hope of gradual reform will not be possible within a military-dominated parliamentary debate. It will happen only when the people challenge the status quo with public pressure.

However, although mass action is believed to be necessary to bring about change in Burma, its inherent dangers mean the possibility of its success remains a big question.

"The calls for public action are getting louder since the prospect of elite-initiated negotiation became impossible," said Nyan Win. "If the regime rigs the referendum result, it could spark mass protests."

A recent history of democratization shows that vote-rigging and stealing elections create favorable conditions and the opportunity for the outbreak of a democratic uprising or, in a worst case scenario, violence.

In fact, vote rigging might not only trigger public outrage in Burma, but also test the loyalty of the regime's staff. It could create divisions and weaken the standing of Than Shwe, who is solely responsible for the decision to move ahead with the unilateral implementation of the current political process by ignoring the UN's call for inclusiveness.

Whether or not public action leads to a negotiated transition depends on the opposition's leadership. No process of democratization has evolved purely and solely from a civil movement or people’s uprising.

It would nevertheless be shortsighted to exclude the role and power of the people in a Burmese political context where elite-driven transition is no longer relevant.

UNLD Calls for Referendum Boycott

The Irrawaddy News

While many political campaigners in Burma are calling for a “No” vote in the forthcoming referendum, the United Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD) is calling for a complete boycott of the polls on May 10.

Leaders of the UNLD, a Rangoon-based umbrella organization of political parties representing ethnic minority peoples, said that casting a vote in the constitutional referendum is a form of following the regime's orders and supporting their "Seven-step road map" to democracy.

Speaking with The Irrawaddy on Thursday, Thawng Kho Thang, a senior member of the UNLD and the Committee Representing People’s Parliament (CRPP), said: “As we never supported the ‘Seven-step road map,’ why should we go and vote? If we cast a vote, it means we support Step Four of the road map. So, we won’t go and cast a vote in the referendum.”

The national referendum is the fourth step on the junta’s so-called “Seven-step road map” toward democracy in Burma. The junta has also announced the fifth step of the road map—multi-party elections in 2010.

Thawng Kho Thang said that no leader or member of the UNLD will cast a vote in the national referendum. The group called for a boycott of the referendum on May 10 and urged Burmese citizens to join the boycott.

Senior leaders of the UNLD also include: Aye Tha Aung, the chairman of the Arakan League for Democracy and the secretary of the CRPP; Thar Ban of the Arakan League for Democracy; and veteran politician Aung Tin Oo.

Thawng Kho Thang said that even if a majority of Burmese citizens vote “No” in the referendum, the junta will try to legitimize the draft constitution somehow.

The UNLD leader also said that the military regime was holding the national referendum too early after releasing the draft of the constitution, which gave voters insufficient time to read the 194-page document. He said many citizens were unclear about the new constitution and didn’t know whether to support it or oppose it.

"The junta should allow another two years for people to study the constitution,” he added. “If possible, they should translate the draft constitution into ethnic languages, because some ethnic minority people can’t read Burmese."

Thawng Kho Thang predicted that the majority of Burmese citizens would vote “Yes” in the referendum out of fear of repercussions from the security forces.

He also criticized the National League for Democracy, saying that the opposition party did not launch its “Vote No” campaign widely enough in Burma nor seek to educate people about the junta's constitution.

UNLD senior member Aye Thar Aung also confirmed that he would not participate in the May 10 referendum. He said that to solve the conflict in Burma, the military regime should create a genuine dialogue with the opposition parties—not hold a constitutional referendum.

The UNLD leaders condemned the draft constitution as a one-sided document written by the military generals alone, which lacked the suggestions of the 1990 elected members of the CRPP.

Meanwhile, Rangoon-based veteran politician Amyotheryei Win Naing suggested that Burmese citizens should seriously consider casting a vote on May 10 based on two points.

He said that if 32 million people are eligible to vote in the referendum, then a turnout of 16 million plus one person would legitimize the referendum.

If half of the participants, 8 million plus one person, vote “Yes,” the draft constitution would be legitimized, he said.

“If people don’t vote, the junta cannot legitimize the draft constitution,” Amyotheryei Win Naing said in a letter received by The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

'Burma Referendum A Shame'

Special Correspondent

Guwahati, Northeast India: The May 10 referendum on a new constitution in Burma has been termed as a shame process aimed at entrenching the military by the Human Rights Watch. The New York based rights body in a statement on May 1 asserted that the conditions for a free and fair referendum do not exist in Burma because of widespread repression, including arrests of opposition activists, media censorship, bans on political meetings and gatherings, the lack of an independent referendum commission and courts to supervise the vote, and a pervasive climate of fear created by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in the run-up to the referendum.

"The Burmese generals are showing their true colors 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 61-page report, "Vote to Nowhere: The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma," shows that the referendum is being carried out in an environment of severe restrictions on access to information, repressive media restrictions, an almost total ban on freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and the continuing widespread detention of political activists. It highlights recent government arrests, harassment and attacks on activists opposed to the draft constitution.

Since the announcement of the referendum in February 2008, the Burmese military government has stepped up its repression, detaining those expressing opposition to the draft constitution. For example, on March 30 and April 1, security forces detained a total of seven opposition activists who had held a peaceful protest wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word "No" in Rangoon. Throughout Burma, similarly peaceful protests are immediately broken up by the authorities. The Thailand-based Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners in Burma reported that over 70 Burmese activists have been arrested trying to stage demonstrations in Burma between April 25-28.

The SPDC's wide use of spies and informants severely limits the ability of people to speak freely even when talking with friends in teahouses or private homes. Any gathering of more than five people is banned in Burma, and even solitary peaceful protesters face imprisonment.

SPDC-backed groups routinely threaten violence against members of the leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In April 2008, such groups allegedly were responsible for physical attacks on NLD officials and human rights activists.

The draft constitution, a 194-page document only available in Burmese and English, was released just a month before the referendum. Many Burmese citizens are ethnic minorities who do not speak Burmese or English, and so have no ability to read the draft.

"You can't hold a free and fair referendum when you deny every basic right to your people," Adams said. "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."

The referendum is taking place just months after the Burmese junta violently crushed massive nationwide pro-democracy protests in September 2007, documented in the Human Rights Watch report, "Crackdown: Repression of the 2007 Popular Protests in Burma." The brutal crackdown drew international condemnation and renewed pressure on the government to end its repression and bring about real democratic reform. Apparently in response, the SPDC accelerated its "seven-step path to democracy" and announced the referendum.

The draft constitution emerged from the 14-year-long National Convention. The National Convention was a tightly controlled, repressive, and undemocratic process that excluded the vast majority of the representatives elected in the annulled 1990 parliamentary elections. Any statement to be made at the National Convention had to be pre-approved and censored by the military-controlled Convening Commission. Criticism of the National Convention was punishable by prison sentences of up to 20 years. Two delegates were sentenced to 15- and 20-year prison terms respectively, simply for disseminating speeches delivered at the convention.

The new report analyzes key elements of the draft constitution, demonstrating that it seeks to entrench military rule and limit the role of independent political parties. Under the draft constitution, the commander-in-chief will appoint military officers for a quarter of all seats in both houses of parliament, and the military has even broader representation in the selection of the president and two vice-presidents.

The draft constitution treats political parties with open hostility: draconian restrictions exclude many opposition politicians from running for office, and a custom-drafted clause prevents NLD opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding any elected office because she is the widow of a foreigner. The draft constitution makes it virtually impossible to amend these clauses, because more than three-quarters of the members of both houses of parliament need to approve any amendment. Given that the military holds at least one quarter of the seats – they can also run for any "open seats," so their representation will be significantly higher – it holds an effective veto.

Human Rights Watch called on the international community not to give any credibility to the referendum process, and to firmly insist on real reform from Burma's military rulers. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy on Burma have a particular responsibility to speak out clearly and forcefully and make it clear that only a referendum that meets international standards will be recognized.

"This referendum and the draft constitution it seeks to impose on the Burmese people are designed to forever entrench more of the same abusive rule that Burma has endured for nearly half a century already," said Adams. "The Burmese junta's friends, including China, India, and Thailand, should not give any credibility to this process. If they do, it will simply expose them to ridicule for having said they were committed to democratic change in Burma."

Supporting: Narinjara News

USDA Member Stabbed to Death

Sittwe: A member of the USDA, or Union Solidarity Development Association, in Sittwe, Arakan State, died at the Sittwe hospital on 20 April from injuries sustained in a knife attack, reports a town resident.

The victim has been identified as Ko Maung Maung, 26 years old, from Singu Land Ward in Sittwe. He was a close associate of Arakan State USDA General Secretary U Kyaw Yin.

The incident took place on a ferry ship that was harbored at Sittwe's inland water transportation jetty on the day of April 20.

An 18-year-old youth named Ko Kyaw Win reportedly stabbed Maung Maung with a knife during a quarrel over the matter of the transportation of goods to Buthidaung from Sittwe via the ferry ship.

Maung Maung was a supervisor of goods transportation on the waterway from Sittwe to Buthidaung, and had been appointed to his position by U Kyaw Yin.

U Kyaw Yin has received several good business opportunities from the Burmese military government, among them the control of the transportation of goods between Sittwe and Buthidaung.

Many USDA members have been appointed by U Kyaw Yin as workers in the transportation sector, and the USDA members are known to harass ordinary travelers and traders and collect large tolls for transportation services.

It is believed that Ko Kyaw Win stabbed Ko Maung Maung on board the ship out of frustration with this harassment and extortion.

Supporting: Narinjara News

U.S. widens sanctions on Myanmar

WASHINGTON (Reuters-IHT): President George W. Bush said Thursday that he had ordered a new round of sanctions on state companies in Myanmar to pressure the military leadership there over human rights abuses and to push for political change.

"Today I've issued a new executive order that instructs the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of Burmese state-owned companies that are major sources of funds that prop up the junta."

The sanctions were targeted at companies and industries that produce timber, pearls and gems. They mark the latest effort by Bush to ratchet up pressure on Myanmar after its crackdown against pro-democracy protesters last September.

"Today I'm sending yet another clear message that we expect there to be change and we expect generals to honor the will of the people," Bush said.

The Treasury Department has already imposed sanctions on Myanmar's private companies and military leaders.

Myanmar last held elections in 1990, but ignored the results when the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has spent more than 12 of the past 18 years under some form of detention.

The current junta has scheduled a referendum on May 10 as a critical stage in a seven-step "road-map to democracy" that should culminate in multi-party elections in 2010, as a replacement to the absolute power wielded by the army since a 1962 coup.

Human Rights Watch has said that at least 20 people were killed in the crackdown on protesters last September, but Western governments say the toll may have been much higher.

Burma's army digs in

By Peter Janssen, dpa
Bangkok Post

When Burmese vote in a May 10 referendum on the country's new constitution, they will be getting a bitter foretaste of the "discipline-flourishing democracy" the military has in store for them.

The referendum, Burma's third in the past five decades, will theoretically decide the fate of the country's new charter, a document that promises to cement the dominant role of the military in Burmese politics following the next general election, planned in 2010.

In fact, the outcome of the referendum is a foregone conclusion, according to veteran Burma watchers.

"It's going to be a yes vote," said Naing Aung Oo, a former Burmese student activist who was forced to flee the country in the aftermath of the 1988 anti-military protests. "There are two reasons, one is intimidation and the other reason is the high probability of rigging the vote," he explained.

The military junta, calling itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has left little up to free choice in the upcoming referendum.

The generals no doubt learned their lesson from the 1990 election, which, contrary to their expectations and planning, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide.

Despite their electoral victory, the NLD was blocked from power on the military's argument that a new constitution was needed before civilian rule could be risked in Burma, a country suffering from a long history of ethnic-based insurgencies and separatist struggles.

The referendum on the constitution, which took 14 years to draft, was announced in February, amid intensifying international pressure on the Burmese military regime to demonstrate its sincerity in moving towards some form of democratic system in the aftermath of its latest crackdown on its own people in September of last year, when the government brutally suppressed protests led by Buddhist monks.

In the same month, but less publicly, the regime also announced a new law that punishes anyone caught publicly criticizing the referendum with a three-year jail term and a fine.

The law has been readily enforced. Between March and April scores of activists have been detained for holding peaceful protests urging a "No" vote on the referendum, including five members of National League for Democracy (NLD) who participated in a peaceful protest in Rangoon, according Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The New York-based rights group said conditions for a free and fair referendum on May 10 do not exist because of widespread repression, media censorship, bans on political gatherings, the lack of an independent referendum commission and courts to supervise the vote, and a pervasive climate of fear created by the ruling junta in the run-up to the election.

But given the content of the constitution being voted on, the nature of this "discipline-flourishing" referendum should come as a surprise to nobody.

Two of the fundamental principles of the military-drafted constitution are to provide "a discipline-flourishing genuine multiparty democracy" and "for the Tatmadaw (military) to be able to participate in the national political leadership role."

How the military will dominate Burma's post-election politics is clearly spelled out.

Under the draft charter, 110 members of 440-seat lower house, or People's Parliament, and 56 members of the 224-seat upper house, or National Parliament, would be selected by the military.

Control of this 25 per cent of both houses would effectively bar amendments to the charter that might threaten the military's dominance, since for an amendment to pass, it would require more than 75-per-cent support.

The draft constitution also includes restrictions excluding many opposition politicians from running for office and a clause that effectively prevents opposition leader Suu Kyi from holding any elected office because she is the widow of a foreigner.

The new charter also enshrines the right of Burma's future president, a non-elected post that is likely to be claimed by the commander-in-chief, to seize executive and legislative powers in case of an emergency.

"A military coup could be implemented in Burma by constitutional means," noted Lian Sakhong, general secretary of the Ethnic National Council, representing the ethnic minority groups opposed to the military.