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The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), a military-controlled, nominally "transitional" government, has ruled Burma since 1988 (following 26 years of formal military rule under dictator Ne Win). Despite some economic liberalisation, it continues to exercise almost uncontested control marked with widespread violations of human rights and a denial of basic freedoms.

Support in the international community for the constitutional process is a last resort after years of vacillation by the SPDC, broken promises of democratic reforms and flagrant disregard for international norms of respect for basic rights, but the new constitution, if it is completed in its present form, will not necessarily make things any better: it plans to codify the role of the military in the future affairs of state, reserves one quarter of parliamentary seats for serving officers, makes sure the president will be a retired general and includes a raft of provisions designed to bar opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from participating in elections. She remains under house arrest in Rangoon, despite widespread calls for her release.

Many former delegates to this convention, including many elected in 1990, are now imprisoned, exiled or dead. Elected delegates constitute about 1 per cent of the 1,080 people in attendance. Those who do go, even the handpicked ones supporting the SPDC, are not permitted to question the proceedings or suggest alternative provisions. Many ethnic groups that have signed cease-fires with the SPDC after decades of fighting central government rule are becoming increasingly vocal and dissatisfied with the process, but it requires courage to publicly question this stage-managed process: a 1996 law makes it a criminal offence to criticise or obstruct the constitutional process in any way.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently dispatched his special envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to Beijing, Tokyo and New Delhi to consult with key countries following his meetings in Washington the previous week. Gambari, who visited Burma twice last year, the highest-ranking UN official to be accepted after years of the SPDC barring other envoys, is drumming up support for engaging the military government at this critical junction. In India, Gambari and his hosts agreed that in engaging the SPDC it is important to "recognise positive steps made by [Burma] while at the same time encouraging it to make further progress towards democratisation and human rights".

Just what the positive steps have been is unclear. In late June the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) took the remarkably rare step of making a public statement on Burma. Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the ICRC, stated that "repeated abuses committed against men, women and children living along the Thai-[Burmese] border violate many provisions of international humanitarian law". The ICRC was also concerned at the limitations on its activities since late 2005, especially in areas where thousands of civilians are being coerced into supporting the army in military operations and "the large-scale destruction of food supplies and the means of production". Restrictions on other aid agencies have circumscribed the ability of most humanitarian agencies to access areas and communities in urgent need.

In April, the United Nations Development Programme stated in a confidential humanitarian-strategy paper stated that "many of the difficulties encountered by the population of [Burma] today are a result of ill-informed and outdated socio-economic policies, along with the lack of legal protection and redress for victims of injustice and abuse".

In spite of this, the military government remains firmly entrenched in power, with strong diplomatic support from its big neighbours China and India. The military shows no sign of being willing to step back and hand power to an elected civilian government. So what can the international community do?

The resigned argument that little can be done with Burma because of China's influence and increasing arms sales and diplomatic support from India and Russia should be a challenge to Asean, which has watched as Burma has repeatedly embarrassed it through its intransigence and broken promises. Thailand and the other members of Asean must press the Burmese government to end its widespread human-rights violations and create a credible process of handing power to a credible civilian government through free and fair elections. While some in Asean have spoken out against the slow pace of reform, Asean as a whole must also speak clearly and publicly about the situation in Burma. A twisted constitutional process, military assaults on civilians and the denial of basic freedoms have no place in the future political system of Burma, or in an Asean that is in the process of developing its own human-rights framework. Burma's standing in Asean should depend on genuine reform.

Special to The Nation

Brad Adams is the director of the Asia division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

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