Myanmar warns embassies ahead of referendum


Myanmar's military government on Thursday warned foreign embassies not to support Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party, as the nation gears up for a referendum on a constitution opposed by her supporters.


The warning carried in the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper came the morning after the regime announced that the referendum would be held on May 10.


Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party is urging voters to reject the constitution, saying it will not bring democracy to the country which has been ruled by the military since 1962.


"Certain foreign powers, with the intention of interfering in the internal affairs of Myanmar, are now ... aiding and abetting some local political parties to destabilise the country," the paper said.


"Some diplomats of certain foreign embassies in Yangon regularly visit NLD (headquarters), hold talks and give directives to harm the interests of the nation and the people," the paper said.


"The embassies should stop such activities," the government mouthpiece said.


The ruling junta says the new constitution will help create a "discipline-flourishing democracy," with multiparty elections set for 2010.


But critics say the constitution will give the generals a dominant role in government, even after the polls.


Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the NLD to a landslide victory in elections in 1990, would be barred from running in new polls.


The military never recognised NLD's election win, and has silenced the Nobel Peace Prize winner by keeping her under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.


One quarter of the seats in parliament would be reserved for soldiers, appointed by the commander-in-chief. The military would also have broad powers to declare a state of emergency and take direct control of the government.


Amending the constitution would be almost impossible without the military's consent. Three-quarters of parliament must approve any changes, which then must go to voters in a referendum.


Although the NLD and other pro-democracy groups are calling for a "No" vote, they have little ability to campaign effectively because the regime has outlawed speeches and leaflets about the referendum.


In a statement released on Thursday, the NLD accused the junta of suppressing free speech and physically intimidating and arresting their supporters.


"An intimidating atmosphere for the people is created by physically assaulting some of the members of (the) NLD," it said in a statement.


"For these reasons, it is now obvious that the forthcoming referendum cannot be free and fair."


Copies of the constitution were only released to the public on Wednesday, when they were put on sale in government bookstores for nearly one dollar – a price far beyond the means of most people in this impoverished country.


Thailand-based Myanmar analyst Win Min said that by placing the date for the referendum only one month away, the regime left voters with little time to understand the 194-page document.


"They are worried that if they make it longer, the movement for holding a 'No' vote will get some momentum, and people will be more likely to vote 'No,'" Win Min told AFP in Bangkok.


"They are giving little chance to the opposition to organise," he said.


The regime may also have sought to avoid scheduling the referendum too close to the symbolically important date of May 27, which will be the 18th anniversary of the 1990 elections won by the NLD, he said.


That is also the date when the military is due to renew Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest.


In Washington, President George W Bush said he was disappointed with the pace of democratic reforms in Myanmar.


The United States and the European Union have tightened sanctions on Myanmar since a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks in September.


At least 31 people were killed while 74 went missing, according to the United Nations. More than 700 people are still behind bars over the protests, Amnesty International has said. (AFP)