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UPDATE: Despite extensive damage and loss of life caused by Cyclone Nargis, Burma's military government says it will hold its constitutional referendum on May 10 as planned, with voting postponed till May 24 in areas of the country affected by the storm including in Burma’s largest city Rangoon.

(New York) - Burma’s May 10 referendum on a new constitution is a sham process aimed at entrenching the military, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

Conditions for a free and fair referendum do not exist in Burma because of widespread repression, including arrests of opposition activists, media censorship, bans on political meetings and gatherings, the lack of an independent referendum commission and courts to supervise the vote, and a pervasive climate of fear created by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in the run-up to the referendum.

“The Burmese generals are showing their true colors by continuing to arrest anyone opposed to their sham referendum, and denying the population the right to a public discussion of the merits of the draft constitution,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “International acceptance of this process will be a big step backward.”

The 61-page report, “Vote to Nowhere: The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma,” shows that the referendum is being carried out in an environment of severe restrictions on access to information, repressive media restrictions, an almost total ban on freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and the continuing widespread detention of political activists. It highlights recent government arrests, harassment and attacks on activists opposed to the draft constitution.

Since the announcement of the referendum in February 2008, the Burmese military government has stepped up its repression, detaining those expressing opposition to the draft constitution. For example, on March 30 and April 1, security forces detained a total of seven opposition activists who had held a peaceful protest wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word “No” in Rangoon. Throughout Burma, similarly peaceful protests are immediately broken up by the authorities. The Thailand-based Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners in Burma reported that over 70 Burmese activists have been arrested trying to stage demonstrations in Burma between April 25-28.

The SPDC’s wide use of spies and informants severely limits the ability of people to speak freely even when talking with friends in teahouses or private homes. Any gathering of more than five people is banned in Burma, and even solitary peaceful protesters face imprisonment.

SPDC-backed groups routinely threaten violence against members of the leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In April 2008, such groups allegedly were responsible for physical attacks on NLD officials and human rights activists.

The draft constitution, a 194-page document only available in Burmese and English, was released just a month before the referendum. Many Burmese citizens are ethnic minorities who do not speak Burmese or English, and so have no ability to read the draft.

“You can’t hold a free and fair referendum when you deny every basic right to your people,” Adams said. “The generals expect the Burmese people to just shut up, follow their orders, and approve the draft constitution without any discussion or debate. That’s not exactly how democracies are born.”

The referendum is taking place just months after the Burmese junta violently crushed massive nationwide pro-democracy protests in September 2007, documented in the Human Rights Watch report, “Crackdown: Repression of the 2007 Popular Protests in Burma.” The brutal crackdown drew international condemnation and renewed pressure on the government to end its repression and bring about real democratic reform. Apparently in response, the SPDC accelerated its “seven-step path to democracy” and announced the referendum.

The draft constitution emerged from the 14-year-long National Convention. The National Convention was a tightly controlled, repressive, and undemocratic process that excluded the vast majority of the representatives elected in the annulled 1990 parliamentary elections. Any statement to be made at the National Convention had to be pre-approved and censored by the military-controlled Convening Commission. Criticism of the National Convention was punishable by prison sentences of up to 20 years. Two delegates were sentenced to 15- and 20-year prison terms respectively, simply for disseminating speeches delivered at the convention.

The new report analyzes key elements of the draft constitution, demonstrating that it seeks to entrench military rule and limit the role of independent political parties. Under the draft constitution, the commander-in-chief will appoint military officers for a quarter of all seats in both houses of parliament, and the military has even broader representation in the selection of the president and two vice-presidents.

The draft constitution treats political parties with open hostility: draconian restrictions exclude many opposition politicians from running for office, and a custom-drafted clause prevents NLD opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding any elected office because she is the widow of a foreigner. The draft constitution makes it virtually impossible to amend these clauses, because more than three-quarters of the members of both houses of parliament need to approve any amendment. Given that the military holds at least one quarter of the seats – they can also run for any “open seats,” so their representation will be significantly higher – it holds an effective veto.

Human Rights Watch called on the international community not to give any credibility to the referendum process, and to firmly insist on real reform from Burma’s military rulers. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy on Burma have a particular responsibility to speak out clearly and forcefully and make it clear that only a referendum that meets international standards will be recognized.

“This referendum and the draft constitution it seeks to impose on the Burmese people are designed to forever entrench more of the same abusive rule that Burma has endured for nearly half a century already,” said Adams. “The Burmese junta’s friends, including China, India, and Thailand, should not give any credibility to this process. If they do, it will simply expose them to ridicule for having said they were committed to democratic change in Burma.”

Chronology of Burma's Constitutional Process

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