Burma schedules constitutional referendum and elections

Burma's military government announced Saturday that it will hold a constitutional referendum this year and an election in 2010.

Burma's military rulers, widely criticized by the international community for not handing over power to a democratically elected government, announced Saturday that the country will hold a constitutional referendum this year and an election in 2010.

The national referendum to approve a new constitution will be held in May, a government official said.

"The time has now come to change from military rule to democratic civilian rule," official announcements on state radio and television said.

In 1990, in the last general election in Burma (also known as Myanmar), Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won, but the military junta refused to cede power. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy advocate, has been held since May 2003 either in prison or under house arrest.

Critics have questioned whether the proposed constitution will be fair and democratic.

Suu Kyi's party noted the lack of detail in the plan released Saturday by the Burmese government.

"The announcement is vague, incomplete and strange," spokesman Nyan Win said. 

"Even before knowing the results of the referendum, the government has already announced that elections will be held in 2010," he said, implying that the government was certain that the draft constitution will be approved.

Also, the mere months before the referendum leave little time for activists to organize a campaign against it, especially with a large number of the country's leading pro-democracy figures in jail, most in connection with last year's anti-government protests.

After cracking down on those demonstrations, in August and September, the junta came under international pressure to move toward democracy. According to a UN estimate, at least 30 died in protest-related violence.

British officials criticized Burma for not consulting with Suu Kyi and other independent political leaders about the constitution or election process.

"A genuine and inclusive process of national reconciliation" is necessary for Burma's transition to democracy, Britain's Foreign Office said, calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962 and has not had a constitution since the last one was scrapped in 1988 when the army brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations.

The military refused to recognize the 1990 election results, saying the country first needed a new constitution.

Guidelines for that new constitution were adopted by a national convention last year. A government-appointed commission is now drafting the document.

Critics say the convention was a farce because the delegates were hand-selected by the government and Suu Kyi could not attend.

Some ethnic minority groups say the constitution will give the central government greater powers, even as they try to seek more administrative and judicial autonomy in their areas.

A clause in the draft guidelines guarantees 25 per cent of the parliament seats for the military, with representatives nominated by the commander in chief.

The new constitution would also disqualify presidential candidates who are "entitled to the rights and privileges of a ... foreign country." That would bar Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British, from running.

With files from the Associated Press