MAE SOT, Thailand (Reuters) - A referendum on an army-made constitution in Myanmar will be a “major battlefield” between the junta and a people wanting to be rid of military rule, the country’s biggest dissident group said on Monday.
In a statement given to Reuters in the Myanmar-Thai border town of Mae Sot, the “88 Generation Students” — named after a brutally suppressed 1988 uprising — called on the former Burma’s 53 million people to reject the charter in the May vote.
“The regime is attempting to legalize the military dictatorship with a sham constitution,” said the group, whose leaders were jailed in last year’s protests.
“This is a declaration of war by the military regime against the people of Burma.”
The army, which has run Myanmar under various guises since 1962, announced the referendum on Saturday, saying it would be followed by “multi-party, democratic elections” two years later.
The elections would be the first since 1990, when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a huge landslide only to see the generals ignore the result. Suu Kyi has spent most of the interim under house arrest.
The NLD has called the junta’s proposal — part of a seven-step “roadmap to democracy” unveiled in 2003 — “erratic” and highlighted the irony of announcing an election even before the result of the referendum.
Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner now living in Thailand, said that having been denied any chance of contributing to its creation, the NLD would be forced to reject a charter that appears to yield little ground to civilian rule.
Although not yet completed — let alone published — snippets in state-controlled media suggest the army commander-in-chief will be the most powerful figure in the country, able to appoint key ministers and assume power “in times of emergency”.
Bo Kyi said the 88 Generation and, in all probability, the NLD would campaign for a no vote to tell the generals they could not get away with introducing reform on their terms only, to the exclusion of all other points of view.
“The main thing we want is to work together to solve the problems. We need dialogue. We want dialogue,” he said. “We can conduct a campaign very easily. People who want change will help us.”
The timing of the announcement is particularly ironic given the generals’ unrelenting crackdown on dissent in the wake of September’s monk-led pro-democracy demonstrations which evolved from small protests against massive fuel price increases.
“If they are truly committed to democratic change, then they should create a democratic environment — allow freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom for all political prisoners,” Bo Kyi said.
Given the constraints of campaigning in one of the world’s most repressive states, most of the work will be done by word of mouth, distribution of leaflets and CDs, and dissident radio and television, he added.
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma), nearly 700 people are still in detention as a result of the crackdown, in which the United Nations says at least 31 people were killed.
The whereabouts of around 300 prisoners are known, Bo Kyi said, but the others have simply disappeared into the Myanmar gulag. Rumors abound of internment camps on remote tropical islands in the Andaman Sea or the swamps of the Irrawaddy delta.
“If they are in prison, at least we know where they are. If they are in a secret place, they could be being tortured or even killed,” Bo Kyi said.
Editing by Michael Battye and Alex Richardson