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Myanmar resumes drafting constitution amid world pressure to speed up process

NYAUNG HNA-PIN, Myanmar – Wearing feathered headdresses and rainbow-colored gowns, hundreds of delegates from across Myanmar gathered Monday to draw up a new constitution amid international pressure to accelerate the process.In a tightly choreographed event, the repressive government opened the convention with a veiled attack on critics who have accused the junta of delays meant to retain its hold on power.Critics say the convention cannot reflect the desires of the people when the head of the main opposition party, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been barred from participating. Her party won a landslide victory in elections in 1990, but the military refused to hand over power, saying the country first needed a new constitution.The national convention has been running intermittently since 1993 and the junta has yet to set a timetable for drawing up the guidelines for a new constitution.Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, chairman of the committee that holds the convention, took the podium Monday and warned: “External and internal elements are trying to derail the national convention process at a time when it is going smoothly and successfully. Beware of the dangers of subversionists.”Rushing the process, Thein Sein told the 1,074 delegates, would only lead to a flawed document.Thein Sein did not direct his attacks at any nation or group. But the convention comes after the United States – which has imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar and called it an “outpost of tyranny” – successfully lobbied the U.N. Security Council on Friday to hold a closed-door briefing on the country.The delegates – including politicians and leaders of ethnic groups, workers, business people and government employees – gathered at a sprawling convention center about 25 miles north of the capital. The session was closed to reporters after the brief opening speech; much of the work was expected to begin Tuesday.Critics have long said the convention was a sham.”From the very beginning, we felt this would not be free,” said Myanmar political analyst Win Naing, who turned down an offer to attend the convention. “I’m not interested unless the process can be changed. The delegates weren’t chosen freely. They were hand-picked.”Suu Kyi has been under continuous detention for more than two years, and has spent 10 of the last 16 years in detention. Her house arrest was extended by six months last week, and she has been barred from the convention. Her party is boycotting the event.On the streets of Yangon, billboards featuring smiling residents encouraged the country to support the process in the name of unity and patriotism.The government promoted the convention ahead of the nightly news with video footage featuring flourishing factories, new bridges and fertile rice fields.But for most Myanmar citizens, life is only getting harder amid rising gasoline prices, increasing joblessness and ongoing political repression.”The extension of Suu Kyi’s detention is not a good sign for the country since it is evidence that there can be no dialogue which is necessary for national reconciliation,” said Than Tun, who works in the tourist industry. “I think the political situation will only improve if Myanmar is discussed in the Security Council.”Delegates, however, used words like “historic” and “auspicious” to describe the resumption of talks over the constitution, and said they were looking forward to tackling a range of issues in coming weeks – including the sharing of administrative and judicial powers, and the role of the army in future governments.”I strongly believe a new democratic nation will emerge from this national convention,” said Aung Hkam Hti, a 70-year-old leader of the Pao tribe, one of 17 ethnic rebel groups that over the years forged peace agreements with the government. “Those who think the convention will not be successful are those holding negative views.”Along with Suu Kyi’s party, the meeting is being boycotted by a party representing the Shan people, Myanmar’s second-largest ethnic group after the Burmans, and a smaller minority organization known as the Kokang.Representatives of the New Mon State Party, which signed a peace deal with the junta in 1995 and represents the ethnic Mon, are only attending as observers because their earlier proposals were ignored.


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