Burmese junta chief promises democracy

Mar 27, 2008 (AFP), Burma’s junta chief Than Shwe said Thursday that civilians would take the reins of government after elections in 2010, once a constitution is approved giving broad powers to the military.

But he did not say when the public would be allowed to see the final version of the proposed constitution, nor did he announce an exact date for a planned referendum to approve it.

"As the new constitution has already been drafted, it will be put to a national referendum in forthcoming May, and subsequently the multiparty general elections will follow in 2010 in line with the provisions of the constitution," he said to 13,000 soldiers at a military parade in the new capital Naypyidaw.

The 74-year-old general said his military government did not "crave for power," insisting on the junta’s "ultimate aim to hand over the state power to the people."

Foreign journalists were denied visas to report on the event, which came six months after a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks.

Than Shwe made the remarks in a 15-minute speech during a ceremony to mark Armed Forces Day, the most important holiday on the military’s calendar.

The event took place in a remote military compound under a scorching sun at a parade ground lined with towering statues of ancient Burmese kings.

Despite concerns about his health, Than Shwe appeared strong as he inspected the troops while riding in an open-topped limousine.

He stood on a open stage at a podium to deliver his speech, smiling and waving to foreign military attaches as he left.

The military chief made no mention of the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests, which the United Nations estimates left 31 dead as security forces violently disrupted mass marches led by Buddhist monks.

But he repeated his oft-issued warning against the "cunning tactics of separatism", saying "unscrupulous persons are consistently striving to disintegrate" the country.

Burma has suffered six decades of civil war, with ethnic minorities battling for autonomy in their regions.

A senior military official told AFP on condition of anonymity that foreign journalists had been denied visas because of concerns that ethnic rebels would try to disrupt the Armed Forces Day ceremony.

Last month the regime surprised the world by announcing a timetable for elections, which western countries have criticised for failing to include detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, the only person outside the regime who has seen the proposed constitution, told Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper on Wednesday that the charter would retain the military’s dominant role in politics.

About 25 percent of the parliamentary seats would go to serving soldiers, while the junta would have the power to appoint personnel to key ministries such as defence, home affairs and border affairs, Gambari said in the interview.

While the proposed constitution calls for a multiparty democracy with regular elections, it gives extensive powers to the president, who can appoint or dismiss legislative and judicial officials, the report added.

During Gambari’s last visit to Burma from 6 to 9 March, he was denied a meeting with Than Shwe but granted two visits with Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest.

The junta refused to consider amending the document to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run in elections.

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