Myanmar's military junta unveiled a timetable for the country's first elections in two decades, but it was unclear on Sunday if detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be allowed to stand.
The surprise weekend announcement of a constitutional referendum in May to set the stage for elections in 2010 appeared to catch her National League for Democracy off guard.
If held, the elections would be the first since 1990, when her NLD swept to victory - only for the military to refuse to accept the result.
Western nations have been piling pressure on the hardline regime to reform since it bloodily suppressed mass pro-democracy protests in September.
The rallies, spearheaded by Buddhist monks, posed the biggest challenge to military rule in nearly 20 years, and the United Nations estimates at least 31 people were killed in the ensuing crackdown.
Thailand-based Myanmar analyst Win Min said the junta was trying to defuse both international pressure and lingering domestic tensions by announcing its timetable.
The junta "may worry about possible mass movements again, so this is to cool down the people not to do demonstrations," he said.
The official New Light of Myanmar newspaper devoted its front page Sunday to a warning from senior junta leader Than Shwe.
He accused unnamed "destructive elements" of trying "to constantly hinder and sabotage our development tasks," and also urged the public to "always remain vigilant against these elements and ward off the dangers posed by them."
In Yangon, a 31-year-old businessman was enthusiastic about the referendum and the planned elections, but voiced frustration at the lack of information offered by the junta.
"I think everyone will welcome the elections. But I know little about it because the government did not provide any details," said the man, who declined to be named.
For one 45-year-old street vendor, just trying to survive in one of the world's poorest nations was far more important than political developments.
"I am not interested in politics. I don't care. I am too busy making my daily living," he said.
The military announcement on state media did not give an exact date for the May referendum or the 2010 elections.
Singapore, which currently chairs the regional ASEAN group of countries, on Sunday welcomed Myanmar's move.
"This is a positive development. We hope that the Myanmar government will ensure that the political process is an inclusive one that would lead to peaceful national reconciliation in the country," Singapore's foreign ministry said.
The ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which Myanmar belongs, led regional criticism of the September crackdown.
But rights activists have accused Singapore of not taking economic action against the junta, prompting the city state to strongly deny allegations that it allows banks to keep illicit funds for top Myanmar generals.
The junta has yet to unveil the final version of its proposed constitution, but the guidelines produced by the secretive convention that drafted the text appear to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.
One clause forbids anyone married to foreigners from standing - Aung San Suu Kyi was married to Briton Michael Aris, who died in 1999.
Another clause requires the president to have a "military vision" of state affairs.
The charter would also reserve one quarter of all seats in parliament for serving officers, who would be appointed by the commander-in-chief.
The NLD, which boycotted the final sessions of the constitutional talks to protest Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest, said it was surprised the military had set an election date before knowing the outcome of the referendum.
"How can they know if it will be a success? It is still early to talk about an election," NLD spokesman Nyan Win said.
Former colonial power Britain gave a guarded response to the announcement, noting that Myanmar - formerly known as Burma - continued to detain key political leaders and the election process was decided without any consultation.
"The transition to democracy in Burma requires the participation of all political stakeholders," a Foreign Office spokeswoman in London said.
"The military rulers should release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners without delay. Together they should work on the road to democracy and a secure future for Burma."
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been confined to her home for 12 of the last 18 years, was under house arrest at the time of the 1990 election victory.
The junta, ignoring the result of that election, instead opened a National Convention to draft a new constitution.
After 14 years of fitful talks, the convention wrapped up its work in early September, and it is that constitution which is up for referendum. (AFP)
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