Bush slams Myanmar vote and orders new sanctions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday said a vote in Myanmar this month would not be “free, fair or credible” and imposed new sanctions on state-owned companies to put pressure on the military junta.

The military, which has ruled since 1962, has scheduled a May 10 vote on a new constitution it bills as one stage in a seven-step “roadmap to democracy” to culminate in multi-party elections in 2010.

“However, (junta leader) Than Shwe and his regime are ensuring that the referendum vote will be on a dangerously flawed constitution, and will not be free, fair, or credible,” Bush said in a statement. “They continue to ignore calls from the Burmese people and the international community.”

Bush unveiled a new round of sanctions aimed at putting more pressure on the government to make political changes and end human rights abuses. The sanctions targeted state-owned companies that produce timber, pearls and precious gems.

The companies “are major sources of funds that prop up the junta,” Bush said at a celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage month. “Today I’m sending yet another clear message that we expect there to be change and we expect generals to honor the will of the people.”

The junta last September crushed the biggest pro-democracy protests in nearly 20 years and opposition figures say it has mounted a campaign of intimidation against opponents campaigning for a “No” vote in the referendum.

Critics of the referendum say it would cement the generals in power, giving them 25 percent of the seats in parliament and the right to suspend the charter at will.

The generals staged elections in 1990 but ignored the results when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest or in prison for 12 of the last 18 years.

The latest sanctions prohibit U.S. transactions with certain named companies and seeks to freeze any assets they may have under U.S. jurisdiction.

The Treasury Department has previously imposed sanctions aimed at Myanmar’s military leaders as well as companies controlled by private individuals in the airline and hotel businesses.

As far back as 1997 the Clinton administration banned new investment in Myanmar by U.S. companies and individuals, although the United States had minimal trade and investment of only $225 million at the time.

In 2003, the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act barred the import into the United States of products from Myanmar.

Additional reporting by David Lawder and Paul Eckert; editing by David Storey