Myanmar says more time needed to draft constitution, establish stable democratic state
YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar defended its haphazard efforts to draw up a constitution as delegates prepared to work on the much-delayed document, saying Saturday the country has the right to choose its own path toward democracy and the process cannot be rushed.Meanwhile, the government confirmed for the first time that it has extended pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention by six months. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been held without trial under an anti-subversion law for 10 of the last 16 years.Officials said the country’s constitutional convention would resume Monday after an eight-month hiatus. It has been widely dismissed as a sham by the ruling junta’s critics, who say the delegates were mostly hand-picked by a government intent on maintaining its grip on power.The government, however, insists the 1,000 delegates expected to attend the event were coming of their own free will, and the convention eventually would lead to democracy. The meeting follows closed-door discussions in February and March.”Based on its constitution, the government and people hand in hand will endeavor to build a disciplined and democratic nation,” Aung Toe, the chief justice and vice chairman of the National Convention Convening Commission, told reporters.Aung Toe dismissed suggestions the process was less credible because the country’s largest political party – the National League for Democracy – was boycotting the event due to Suu Kyi’s continued detention.Information Minister Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan confirmed Saturday that Suu Kyi’s house arrest had been extended by six months. The extension had been expected, since the government has shown no signs of wishing to talk with the NLD to resolve the country’s political deadlock.”They are just one party,” Aung Toe said, adding that the NLD had “ignored the wishes of the people” by pulling out of the convention.The United States criticized the extension when it was first reported by Suu Kyi’s party last week, with a State Department spokesman calling it “another step in the wrong direction by Burma’s military leaders.” Myanmar is also known as Burma.Myanmar has been under increasing pressure from the United States to emerge from its isolation and make genuine steps toward instituting a democracy. Last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the junta “one of the worst regimes in the world” for its record on human rights and free speech.President Bush said the price of Myanmar’s “refusal to open up is isolation, backwardness, and brutality.”On Friday, the U.N. Security Council agreed to hold a briefing on Myanmar in the next two weeks, which U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said was a step toward getting Myanmar on the council’s agenda and subjecting the country to regular international scrutiny.Myanmar’s neighbors also have ratcheted up the pressure. A group of regional lawmakers said Saturday the country should be expelled from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations if the junta does not move toward democracy in the next year.Myanmar has had no constitution since the military took power in 1988. In 1990, the NLD won a landslide general election victory but the military refused to hand over power, claiming it first had to write a new constitution.Aung Toe said the commission could not provide a timetable for when the constitution would be completed, but he ruled out having it done by next year.”We have no intention at all to delay the constitution-drafting process,” Kyaw Hsan said. “But sufficient time is needed to establish a firm, stable and disciplined democratic state.”An earlier constitutional convention began in 1993 but was suspended three years later when NLD members walked out, saying they were being forced to rubber-stamp the junta’s decisions.Suu Kyi, 60, was last taken into custody on May 30, 2003, after a pro-government mob attacked her motorcade while she made a political tour of northern Myanmar. She was held first by the military, and later transferred to house arrest after undergoing surgery in the capital, Yangon.Suu Kyi’s longest period of house arrest was in 1989-1995, during which she was awarded the 1991 Nobel prize. Her current detention was extended for a year in November 2004.NLD spokesman U Lwin said he had not heard from Suu Kyi, who is not allowed to have visitors or telephone conversations.