(New York) - The Burmese government’s arrest of two journalists and its decision to extend the detention of a prominent opposition leader demonstrate its continuing contempt for political freedoms despite its preparations for a constitutional referendum in May, Human Rights Watch said today.

Burmese authorities arrested journalists Thet Zin and Sein Win Aung of Myanmar Nation magazine at their office in Thingan Gyun township in Rangoon on the night of February 15, and have since detained them without charge in a nearby police station. Thet Zin, a prominent dissident, and his colleague were collecting material on the government’s crackdown on protests in Rangoon last September and the United Nations’ response to the events.

“Burma’s military regime has once again shown its intolerance toward different political viewpoints by arresting journalists who were doing nothing more than reporting news and opinions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “How can the Burmese authorities create even the semblance of a credible constitutional referendum in May when they won’t allow journalists to report the news?”

The nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders, in its annual report issued last week, documented nine prominent journalists in detention in Burma, including 78-year-old U Win Tin, who has been imprisoned since July 1989. The arrest of Thet Zin and Sein Win Aung bring to 11 the number of journalists known to be detained in Burma.

Burma’s government continues to sharply restrict media freedoms through a draconian system of press scrutiny that requires all domestic copy to be vetted and approved by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division of the Ministry of Information (formerly controlled by the Ministry of Home Affairs). Journalists are routinely banned from publishing if their stories are thought to contain material critical of the military or positive towards the political opposition. Telecommunications, the internet, and even mobile phones are regulated to deter the free dissemination of information, both domestically and internationally.

“Burma’s generals refuse to tolerate any criticism, however well-intentioned,” said Adams. “The arrests of journalists and repression of access to information deny the Burmese people any real opportunity to debate the proposed new constitution.”

In addition, the Ministry of Home Affairs on February 13 informed U Tin Oo, one of the leaders of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), that his house arrest order would be extended for another year. The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) prolonged U Tin Oo’s house arrest a year ago. A former Army chief of staff who was purged in the late 1970s, U Tin Oo joined the NLD in 1988 and was arrested following the brutal government crackdown on NLD members in Depayin in late May 2003. He also spent much of the 1990s in prison and under house arrest.

The Burmese government has continued to arrest political activists in the wake of its crackdown against monks and political activists in August and September 2007. More than 1,800 political dissidents remain in prison in Burma for their involvement in peaceful political activities, a dramatic increase from a year ago. Many of the leaders of the ’88 Generation Students group, such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and other veteran activists from the mass protests in 1988, have been in custody since August.

Human Rights Watch has grave fears for the health and welfare of prominent political activists such as Hkun Tun Oo, the leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), arrested in 2005 after criticizing the SPDC’s flawed constitution-writing process. He is reportedly seriously ill with diabetes and prostate complications in Putao prison in Kachin State. The labor activist Ma Su Su Nway, who was arrested in Rangoon in November 2007, also remains in detention despite a serious heart condition.

Human Rights Watch has serious concerns about access to adequate health care for both activists and called on the government to allow access to independent and competent doctors to determine whether the two, who in any case be should released, require better medical treatment. The International Committee of the Red Cross has not been permitted unfettered visits to Burma’s prisons since late 2005, and has suspended its visits.

This week, the United Nations special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, is scheduled to visit China, India, and other Asian countries to gather support for his efforts to foster political reform in Burma. The SPDC has been delaying a trip by Gambari to Burma. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, has still not been granted a visa to conduct his final research mission before he reports to the UN Human Rights Council in March.

“Despite plans for a constitutional referendum in May, the Burmese authorities are pursuing a policy of repression rather than reform,” said Adams. “Neighboring countries like China, India, and Thailand need to start putting serious public pressure on the Burmese authorities to end these serious human rights abuses.”