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Published: Thursday, 3/10/2005

Playing with democracy

THE military ruling group in Myanmar insists it is earnest about restoring civilian rule using a seven-step "road map to democracy" that includes a new constitution. But it is hard to square its commitment to democracy with its choosing most of the delegates to a constitutional convention.

Unless the government is fair, the outcome of the so-called National Convention could push Myanmar back into a state of civil unrest. In fact, Western governments have disregarded the convention as a mere sham by the government to try to preserve rule. And because the junta took it upon itself to choose most of the 1,075 delegates to the convention, it's pretty clear that it doesn't want to let go after 43 years in power.

But if the military government is being deceptive, its plan could backfire if rebels and other ethnic groups who signed cease-fire agreements don't get more say in the Southeastern Asian nation's operations. The largest rebel faction, the Karen National Union, has made very clear that any tricks by the government won't be taken lightly. KNU general secretary Mahn Sha Hla Phan said that if the constitution doesn't fairly represent various ethnic groups, "cease-fire groups need to consider something very serious." A playful response to words like those is unwise.

If the new constitution ignores minorities' concerns, it will lay ground for future conflicts that could last for years. The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party, National League for Democracy, is still under house arrest raises fears that the military government is engaged in a charade with a convention and talk of democracy, merely to tighten its grip on power.

If the rebels are not treated fairly, it won't matter much that they don't have easy access to weapons or cash. The well-equipped military government should still worry, especially when the insurgents emphatically state that "no matter how big [the junta leaders] are," the rebels are still willing to take them on.

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