Myanmar promises ‘free and fair’ referendum


Myanmar's military junta has promised that May's referendum on a new constitution will be free and fair and that the charter, heavily criticised by the West, will be open to incremental improvement.


"The government will try to make the forthcoming referendum free and fair and I'd like to call on journalists to help make it a success," Information Minister Kyaw Hsan told local reporters summoned to the new capital for Thursday's "Army Day".


Foreign journalists have normally been invited to the former Burma for the March 27 ceremonials but were barred from this year's event, the first since last year's anti-regime protests led by maroon-robed Buddhist monks.


Noting the gradual evolution of the US constitution, Kyaw Hsan, a brigadier general, said there would be scope to improve the charter, which gives the army a quarter of the seats in parliament and the right to stage a coup whenever it wants.


"Something is better than nothing. Having a constitution is better than having no constitution. Once we have something, we can improve it gradually step by step," he said late on Wednesday.


On Thursday, more than 13,000 members of the police, fire brigade and Tatmadaw, as the army is known, took part in a parade at a specially designed ground in Naypyidaw, a dusty, nondescript town that became the capital in 2005.


Making a rare public appearance, junta supremo Than Shwe, who is frequently rumoured to be at death's door, inspected the ranks of soldiers from the back of an open-top Mercedes limousine before delivering a 15-minute speech.


The 75-year-old Senior General, as he is officially titled, stressed that the army would be ready to hand over power after multi-party elections slated for 2010 under the junta's seven-step "roadmap to democracy".


"Our Tatmadaw is making relentless and dedicated efforts during its tenure of shouldering state responsibility with the sincere aim of developing the country without any craving for power," he said.


The date of May's referendum has not yet been announced, although the generals have rebuffed a United Nations offer of international monitors and technical assistance in running the plebiscite.


The rejection intensified fears of a repeat of 1990, when the generals chose to ignore the results of an election in which the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won more than 80 percent of the seats.


Western governments and many of Myanmar's 53 million people dismiss the roadmap as a blueprint for the army legitimising the grip on the power it has held since a 1962 coup.


Some underground democracy groups are campaigning for a "no" vote in the referendum, although some staunch junta opponents admit they are torn by the argument that it is better to have a bad constitution than no constitution at all. (Reuters)