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Burma's Opposition to Boycott Constitutional Convention - 2004-05-14

Burma's opposition National League for Democracy party has announced it will boycott next week's constitutional convention following the military government's refusal to release party leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. The NLD's absence from the convention is expected to raise questions about the legitimacy of the government's moves toward political reform. Senior leaders from Burma's opposition National League for Democracy announced the party's decision Friday after a meeting at the residence of party leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Shortly before the registration deadline, NLD chairman Aung Shwe told reporters the party would not participate in the convention while their senior leaders are confined.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the party's vice chairman, Tin Oo, remain under house arrest despite repeated requests for their release.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained since May 30 last year when the government arrested dozens of party members after a clash with government supporters in northern Burma.

Diplomats and human rights groups say without the NLD - Burma's main opposition party - the constitutional convention will have little impact in terms of bringing about political change in the military ruled country.

Debbie Stothardt, a Bangkok spokeswoman for the human rights group the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, says the government's credibility in the convention process is now at risk.

"It would be safe to say the wheels have fallen off the national convention process," she said. "The NLD, by not participating in the national convention deprives it of any credibility whatsoever."

Ms. Stothardt says observers will be watching closely whether other groups, such as representatives from ethnic minorities, will also attend the convention, due to begin Monday.

Burma's military government - after years of international pressure - announced it would begin gradual steps toward democracy. The constitutional convention is the first step in Prime Minister Khin Nyunt's blueprint for transition. The plan includes new elections and a new parliament, but no timetable.

Hundreds of delegates have been registering for the convention over the past two days to begin drafting a new constitution.

The last constitutional convention stalled in 1996 when the NLD withdrew, charging undue government interference and calling the process a sham.

The NLD had won a landslide election victory in 1990 but the military refused to hand over power arguing at the time that a new constitution needed to be drafted before parliament could meet.