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UPCOMING REFERENDUM A "SHAM", SAY FREE EXPRESSION GROUPS

Burma's military junta is going ahead with a 10 May constitutional referendum except in areas hit hardest by Cyclone Nargis.

Despite a death toll rising above 22,000 and nearly 100,000 left homeless, the military rulers say they will proceed with a constitutional referendum on 10 May. In the 47 townships in Rangoon and the devastated Irrawaddy Delta, the constitution has been postponed to 24 May.

Free expression groups from Asia and around the world say the referendum - whenever it's held - will only reinforce the military's grip on power.

The group of 22 members and partners of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), comprising the Burma Action Group, say that without a free and open political debate the referendum and the constitution itself are a "sham".

"Critics have been threatened with jail if they speak out against the draft or call for a boycott of the vote. Supporters of a 'No' vote are flatly banned from publication and the media has been ordered to reprint propaganda by junta officials," said Roby Alampay of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a member of the Burma Action Group. "This is not a referendum - it is diktat."

Human Rights Watch, which has also been campaigning against the referendum, says the draft constitution, a 194-page document only available in Burmese and English, was released just a month ago. Many Burmese citizens are ethnic minorities who do not speak Burmese or English, and so can't read it.

The proposal seeks to cement military rule and limit the role of independent political parties in future governments, says Human Rights Watch. The commander-in-chief will appoint military officers for a quarter of all seats in both houses of parliament, for example, and the military has even broader representation in the selection of the president and two vice-presidents. The draft also excludes opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding any elected office because she is the widow of a foreigner.

Since February's announcement of the referendum, Burma's military rulers have been arresting opposition activists, banning campaigns against the proposed charter and threatening media that are not supporting the referendum.

According to Mizzima News, at least 60 people were arrested in the northern state of Rakhine at the start of April for wearing T-shirts calling for a "No" vote.

The Burmese rap singer Yan Yan Chan was arrested on 17 April, reportedly because of songs defending free speech and media rights in Burma.

Dozens of supporters of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which has called for people to vote "No" against the draft constitution, have been arrested in the run up to the referendum or have been physically attacked by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Mizzima News reports that the junta is planning to bar foreign reporters from entering the country to report on the referendum and to restrict access to the Internet on 10 May.

At a recent press conference in Bangkok, Soe Aung, a spokesperson for NLD, said, "As we all know, the military regime was too busy preparing this referendum ... which is very important for them because it will cement their power forever through the constitution. So they didn't pay the cyclone much attention."

Human Rights Watch is demanding that the international community, especially Burma's friends China, India and Thailand, not give any credibility to the referendum process unless it meets international standards. "If they do, it will simply expose them to ridicule for having said they were committed to democratic change in Burma," says Human Rights Watch.

Visit these links:
- Burma Action Group statement: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/93196/
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/5rd25s
- Human Rights Watch report, "Vote to Nowhere: The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma": http://tinyurl.com/6aw55m
- Mizzima News: http://www.mizzima.com
- IFEX Burma page: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/145/
- "Bangkok Post": http://tinyurl.com/6h5dat
- "Vote No" campaign: https://www.burmavoteno.info/
- "Burma: It Can't Wait" campaign: http://www.burmaitcantwait.org/
(6 May 2008)

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