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Burma's junta promises democracy, but most are wary

The government's surprise announcement to hold a constitutional referendum is being met with deep skepticism.

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Mr. Maung Oo is not alone in his skepticism. While Singapore, which holds the chairmanship of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), welcomed the junta's announcement, saying it hoped it would result in "peaceful national reconciliation," others were less sanguine.

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The 88 Generation Students, a coalition of leading Burmese democracy activists, branded the referendum a "declaration of war" against the people and warned the ruling junta could unleash a new wave of violence to ensure victory in a constitutional referendum. While the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile group, called the regime "a mad man surrounded by fire" that is "plagued by economic woes, increasing international pressure, and widening public discontent at home," and so simply decided to convene a national referendum to divert attention.

Suu Kyi, who lives locked in her Rangoon home almost incommunicado with the outside world, was not able to make any comment herself. But her NLD party was not enthused, charging the announcement with being "vague, incomplete and strange."

September's dissent

While no one interviewed expects the regime to voluntarily change itself, there's also little faith in a repetition of the September events anytime soon. "Frankly speaking, the September uprisings happened with no real plan, thanks to a blunder of the junta," says U Han Than, an NLD spokesman, referring to the huge price hike in fuel prices that precipitated the street protests.

"But the generals proved again that they are very brutal and suppressive and that we are not strong enough to fight them. The people now know better than ever how determined the generals are to squash any expression of dissent," he says. "So they will not explode without real incitement."

"We are ready for compromise," insists Mr. Han Than. "We are not at war with the government. All we want is to express our opinion – but even that we are not allowed." Under international pressure, the junta recently agreed to send an envoy to hold talks with Suu Kyi, but these have been going nowhere. Last month she sent word to her party that no progress has been made.

And so, reluctantly, most Burmese are left with faith in the long term. "We have no faith in these passing pronouncements," says the head of a monastery in the ancient town of Sagaing, who spoke anonymously for security reasons. "In any case, if we got democracy today we would lose it the next day because we would not know what to do with it.... We have been 'de-educated.' "

Although Burma used to be famous in Southeast Asia for its quality education, today the situation is abysmal as half of its budget goes to the 400,000-strong military and less than 1 percent to education. According to the UN, 50 percent of children here do not finish primary school.

"We need to educate our next leaders and we need to educate the people to become critical thinkers so we can define what we want here," says the Sagaing monk. "Our strength will come from the confidence of being educated. That is when we will manage to turn to democracy. And for that we have years, maybe 10 to 20 to go."

Back in Pakokku, on the banks of the river, near the hawkers selling bags made out of watermelon seeds, an old lady sits beside a cage of sparrows. For 400 kyat, (about 30 cents) you can set a sparrow free, which, according to Buddhism, will bring you merit. She has an owl in a cage, too – freeing it will be an honor costing 1,000 kyat. But she has had no customers lately. "No freedom today," she says, but smiling, as is the Burmese way.