- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

BANGKOK — Burma’s military regime has told delegates writing the country’s new constitution that they must bathe at reasonable times, avoid junk food and live in a self-contained camp where they can enjoy karaoke, movies and golf.

The United States says Burma’s constitutional convention is a sham, and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is boycotting it because she is under house arrest in the capital, Rangoon.

Burma’s military prime minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt, and head of state, Gen. Than Shwe, are manipulating submissive political groups into drafting a constitution that will allow the military immunity from prosecution for human rights violations, according to diplomats and Burmese dissidents.

The convention is being held at a camp on the outskirts of Rangoon, where the more than 1,000 delegates are required to stay.

The delegates are said to represent the country’s political parties, ethnic groups, peasants, workers, intellectuals and government. The generals call the draft a “road map to democracy,” but indicate that the constitution will ensure a future governing role for the military.

“Delegates are advised to wear suitable clothes, avoid taking a bath at unreasonable times and [to not] eat junk food,” the government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported, describing how more than 1,000 delegates should behave while drafting the constitution. (Burma was renamed Myanmar in 1989, after a military dictatorship replaced the previous one.)

The country’s first free multiparty elections in three decades took place 14 years ago and were won by Mrs. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), but the military regime refused to yield power. Mrs. Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest by the junta from 1989 to 1995 and has been in and out of house arrest since 1997.

The mainly Buddhist Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world, but “TV, karaoke, newspapers, movies, a stage show, gymnasium and golf course are being provided for the health and recreation of the delegates,” the newspaper said.

The convention, which began Monday, is expected to be long and drawn out, although no schedule has been announced. The foreign press has not been allowed to cover the event, and there have been no reports about its activities on state radio or television.

The regime’s future role under the new constitution is no secret. One of the six “objectives” of the constitutional convention is “for the[military] to be able to participate in the national political leadership role of the state,” New Light reported.

In an apparent dig at Mrs. Suu Kyi, recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and many other international awards, Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan, the information minister, told delegates “not to accept any other country’s patronage.”

Delegates also must “avoid speaking ill of others,” not express antigovernment views and keep all news about the convention secret until it is announced by the regime, the minister told the delegates.

“Delegates are not allowed to walk out, individually or in groups, nor to mock others,” he said.

The constitutional convention’s opening ceremony was attended by ambassadors representing Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam, New Light reported.

Rangoon has shrugged off the boycott by Mrs. Suu Kyi’s NLD, apparently because the generals consider her effectively marginalized.

The generals “know that her isolation under house arrest is acceptable to the Burmese people and the international community, so long as everyone knows or believes that she is not mistreated and is allowed a tiny degree of freedom within the walls of her villa,” wrote Josef Silverstein, an American academic who follows Burmese affairs.

The regime might have calculated that the United States and Europe are “unwilling to repeat the Iraq experience,” said Mr. Silverstein, author of “Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation.”

Burma, the biggest country in mainland Southeast Asia, has had two other constitutions — one written in 1974 and one from 1947, when the country attained independence from Britain.

“There is no constitution in operation in Burma currently,” said Khin Maung Win, a member of the executive committee of the pro-democracy Bangkok-based Burma Lawyers’ Council.

“Abolition of the constitution by the military regime in 1988 was … to pave the way for the army to take over state power,” he wrote in the latest edition of the group’s journal.

“Burma has an informal bill of rights drawn from Buddha’s teachings” — similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 — plus common law and international conventions and obligations, Mr. Win said.

In related developments this week:

• As the Burmese junta opened its constitutional convention without Mrs. Suu Kyi, the harshest comments came from Washington, where President Bush labeled Burma an “extraordinary threat” to U.S. interests.

• Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government has a policy of “constructive engagement” with Rangoon, suggested that the junta had duped him about the participation of Mrs. Suu Kyi.

“We understood they would release her in time to attend the meeting,” he said.

• Since the United States and European Union slapped sanctions on Burma owing to the detention of Mrs. Suu Kyi, the Association of South East Asian Nations has been Rangoon’s main conduit to the outside world. But former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who championed Burma’s entry to the ASEAN, last month voiced disappointment with the pace of Burmese reform.

• ASEAN member Indonesia said Burma’s national convention falls short of international expectations, and fellow member Thailand formally asked Burma to explain the absence of the NLD from the constitutional talks that the junta touts as the first step toward democracy.

• The International Labor Organization (ILO), a group affiliated with the United Nations, said Wednesday that forced labor remains widespread in Burma. Kari Tapiola, ILO executive director for work standards, said the country has made little progress in stamping out abuses and that recent death sentences for three men linked to the ILO call into question the junta’s commitment to labor reform.

• Human rights watchdog Amnesty International accused Burma’s military this week of severe rights abuses against the nation’s Muslim minority, including eviction from ancestral land and forced labor. The Muslims, who mostly live in northwest Burma and are called Rohingyas, are often forced to work on roads and at military camps, Amnesty said.

“They are also subjected to forced eviction and house destruction, land confiscation and various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation including financial restrictions on marriage,” the rights group said.

• The United Nations would spearhead economic and humanitarian aid to Burma if it freed Mrs. Suu Kyi and consulted the opposition in constitutional talks, U.N. envoy Razali Ismail said this week.

“The U.N. has been working hard with several countries to try to see what can be done by way of incentives,” the former Malaysian diplomat said Tuesday. But the envoy said Rangoon’s failure to release Mrs. Suu Kyi and the absence of her party in the constitutional convention has dashed hopes for foreign aid.

This article is based in part on wire service reports

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