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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May 2004, 06:44 GMT 07:44 UK
Hopes fade for Burma's democracy
By Kate McGeown
BBC News Online

Lt-Gen. Thein Sein walks past ethnic delegates at the National Convention
Analysts say the convention loses credibility without the NLD
Burma's National Convention was billed as a historic step forward in the country's move towards democracy.

Announcing plans for the convention last August, the military government touted it as an important part of a seven-point "roadmap" for change.

But even before the delegates walked into the conference hall on Monday, opposition groups and government critics were questioning whether the meeting would have any legitimacy.

On Friday, the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), announced it was boycotting the convention.

According to Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy - a publication run by Burmese journalists in exile - the outlook for the country's democratic process now looks bleak.

"Without the NLD, the convention lacks any form of credibility," he told BBC News Online.

"It takes two to tango. If the government is not prepared to make any kind of positive gesture, there will be no progress."

The NLD said it had decided to boycott the talks for two main reasons - the continued detention of two senior party figures, leader Aung San Suu Kyi and chairman Tin Oo, and the closure of its regional offices.

The talks will now lack any sort of legitimacy
Saw Sarky, Karen National Union
But the government accused the NLD of making "unreasonable demands", and said Aung San Suu Kyi and Tin Oo would remain detained "to ensure the peaceful development of the National Convention".

Nyo Ohn Myint, a senior NLD member in exile in Thailand, told BBC News Online: "We've been unfairly treated."

"We'd love to talk to the government - we're not saying we don't want talks. It just has to be appropriate, and first we need some political changes," he said.

Other parties and ethnic groups have also boycotted the convention, including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the Karen National Union (KNU).

Saw Sarky, the European representative for the KNU, said the NLD's decision would have a chain effect on other parties.

"It's a huge blow to the ruling junta. The talks will now lack any sort of legitimacy," he said.

The international community also criticised the Burmese junta's failure to reach a compromise with the NLD, as well as the continued detention of opposition leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was said to be "dismayed" that the junta had opened the talks without the opposition.

"The secretary general reiterates that, for the national convention to be credible, it must be all-inclusive and that all the delegates must be able to express their views without sanction," Mr Annan's spokesman said in a statement.

Standing up to the critics

Despite criticism from all directions, Burma's rulers seem determined to continue unabashed with the National Convention.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi is still in detention, despite foreign pressure
In his opening remarks to delegates, Lieutenant-General Thein Sein made no mention of the NLD boycott. In fact, he said the meeting was successful "because the attendance is 98.9%".

The junta is used to withstanding condemnation. When the NLD won national elections by a landslide in 1990, the military refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi, sparking international outrage.

Since then, the pro-democracy leader has spent most of her time in some form of detention, despite a barrage of criticism from home and abroad - and even international sanctions.

When Burmese Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt announced plans for the convention in his "roadmap" in August 2003, optimists hoped it would enable the country to move towards democracy.

But government critics now fear the situation is little changed from that in 1996, when a similar convention collapsed because the NLD walked out, accusing the junta of manipulating the political process.

"It's just a repetition of the last time," said Dr Aung Kin, a London-based Burmese historian.

"All the people attending the conference have to bow to the wishes of the military. You can tell the [ruling generals] don't want change," he said.

But if Burma wants to lose its status as an international outcast, change it must - and quickly.

A conference which merely acts as a rubber stamp to the military's policies will do nothing to stifle the international community's growing impatience with the regime.

If this proves the case, the National Convention will be little more than a missed opportunity, and a stage to highlight how far this country has to go before achieving democracy.


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