[JURIST] A scheduled May 10 referendum [JURIST news archive] on a new constitution proposed by Myanmar's ruling junta is a "sham" designed to legitimize military rule, according to a report [text; press release] released Thursday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website]. HRW criticized the military government for arresting opposition activists and repressing media coverage in the lead-up to the referendum, saying:
The environment in Burma prior to the referendum has been one of continuing intimidation of the political opposition and general populace, denial of basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, and arbitrary arrests and detention. Under such widespread repression and a pervasive climate of fear, no free and fair referendum can take place in Burma.
Since the military crackdown on monks and pro-democracy protesters in August-September 2007, foreign governments and intergovernmental bodies have responded in varying ways. International criticism may be partly responsible for the referendum being announced, in February 2008, but it will not ensure that the vote is conducted freely. Concerted public pressure and targeted sanctions by the military government’s international supporters as well as its detractors is needed if there is to be any hope that real democratic progress, rather than further constitutional travesties, can be achieved.
Opposition groups such as the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi [JURIST news archive] have urged citizens to reject [JURIST report] the proposed constitution put forth by the military government, themselves labeling the referendum a "sham". In April, UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro [official profile] told Reuters in an interview that Myanmar is completely ill-prepared to hold a national constitutional referendum [JURIST report] as part of a democratic political transition. AFP has more.
In March, AP reported that the draft constitution reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military [JURIST report] and would also block pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi from seeking office. It is unclear whether the ruling junta will allow international observers of the referendum as requested by the opposition.