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Referendum law excludes monks and bans dissent

Feb 28, 2008 (DVB), The Burmese government's newly-approved referendum law has banned monks and prisoners from voting, and made campaigning against the referendum punishable by up to three years in prison.

The Referendum Law for the Approval of the Draft Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar of 26 February 2008 sets out the conditions for the national referendum due to be held in May.

Article 11 of the law states that all citizens, naturalized citizens and temporary certificate holders aged 18 or over will be eligible to vote in the referendum.

However, a number of groups are excluded from the voting roll, including members of religious orders, people serving prison terms for any offence, and people who are illegally abroad.

The law defines members of religious orders as Buddhist monks, nuns, novices and religious laymen, as well as serving members of Christian and Hindu religions.

The Article 11 provisions would render political prisoners ineligible to vote, as well as the monks who played a leading role in last September's protests.

Chapter 10 of the law sets out penalties for anyone attempting to disrupt the referendum, for example by voting more than once, falsifying ballot papers or tampering with ballot boxes.

But it also outlaws "lecturing, distributing papers, using posters or disturbing the voting in any other manner, to destroy the referendum".

This move is likely to criminalise the activities of many opposition activists, some of whom have called for a boycott of the referendum.

Article 25 provides for a prison sentence of up to three years or a fine of up to 100,000 kyat, or both, for any violation of these restrictions.

The junta announced on 9 February that they planned to hold a constitutional referendum in May, followed by general elections in 2010.

The draft constitution was approved by the government's drafting committee on 19 February, but has not yet been made public.

The planned referendum has already been criticised as a "sham" by opposition activists, rights groups and some foreign governments.

The possible terms of the constitution have also come under fire after comments by the Burmese foreign minister U Nyan Win suggested that detained National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would not be able to run for office because of her marriage to a foreign national.

Reporting by Si√¢n Thomas

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