Military rulers in Burma (Myanmar) said this weekend they would hold a national referendum in May to approve a new constitution, followed by democratic elections in 2010, the first since 1990. The country's military junta was rebuked by the United Nations Security Council last October after violently repressing pro-democracy marches sparked by economic hardship. Since then, leaders have held sporadic talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and hosted a senior UN envoy, while sticking to its own "road map" to restore democratic rule.
Burma is plagued by armed conflicts along its ethnically diverse borders and lags far behind most of its neighbors in economic development. It's also a major source of illicit drugs, including heroin and amphetamines. Its repression of its political opposition has soured ties with the United States, which, along with Europe and Australia, recently tightened sanctions on the regime. But Burma's natural resources have proved attractive to China, India, and other Asian countries.
A spokesman for the National League for Democracy, the party led by Suu Kyi that won the 1990 ballot only to see its victory annulled, told the BBC that the statement was "vague, incomplete, and strange," given that the election date was conditional on the constitution passing the referendum.
The New Light of Myanmar, a state-owned newspaper, carried in full two decrees issued by the State Peace and Development Council, as the junta is called, for the referendum and the 2010 elections.
The junta's handpicked convention finished its work on the proposed constitution last year but the contents remain largely unknown, the International Herald Tribune reports. The few details that have emerged suggest that the military would strongly guide any civilian government, with one-quarter of seats in parliament reserved for them. Criticizing the process of drafting the document is a criminal offense.
Burma's announcement has received a cool response from Australia and Britain, which have long argued that the military must include Suu Kyi and other dissidents in any meaningful political reforms, says the Associated Press. Even Japan, which takes a more conciliatory line and is a longtime aid donor to Burma, expressed doubt, though in more temperate language than Western critics.
A warmer response came from Singapore, a trading partner of Burma and the current chair of the10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports. Singapore said Burma's election timetable was a positive development that it hoped would result in "peaceful national reconciliation."
On a visit to Burma that ended Sunday, Indian Foreign Minister Shivshankar Menon gave his backing to holding more talks with Suu Kyi, Bloomberg reports. The UN has pressed India to play an active role in supporting the democracy process in Burma, with which shares a 907-mile border. UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, whom the Security Council has dispatched twice to Burma since October, visited India two weeks ago as part of his mission to drum up regional support for his mediation.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Mr. Gambari has been told by the junta to stay away from Burma until mid-April. It says the US is growing impatient at the sluggish pace of UN-brokered efforts and has proposed that the Security Council should back Gambari's mandate with more pressure. Democracy activists want the UN to impose an arms embargo on Burma.
In addition to the political opposition led by Suu Kyi, Burma also faces the task of pleasing restless ethnic minorities, who make up about 30 percent of the population. The Financial Times reports that many ethnic groups remain unhappy that the draft constitution doesn't provide for local autonomy on issues such as education, resource revenues, and culture. This dissatisfaction, coupled with the fallout from last year's widespread protests, could influence the planned referendum vote.
The Irrawaddy, a news service run by exiled Burmese, says many analysts remained skeptical of this road map and the fairness of any voting.