Myanmar Junta Forms Committee to Draft New Constitution

Myanmar's ruling junta on Thursday announced the formation of a Constitution Drafting Commission, another step in the government's "road map" to democracy that is supposed to lead to free elections sometime in the future.

State radio and television said the 54-member committee would be chaired by Chief Justice Aung Toe, with Attorney General Aye Maung serving as vice chairman. A number of other officials, retired doctors and professors were also named to the body.

The announcement did not say when the committee will begin drafting the constitution.

The move came after the junta brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations last month, jailing thousands, and killing 10 protesters, by its own account. Critics of the regime say the true death toll may be closer to 200.

The government insists it will make democratic reforms only according to its own seven-step plan. The announcement came as the junta faces a barrage of international pressure to hold talks with its political opponents, including detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party won a 1990 general election, but the military refused to allow the party to take power.

So far, only the road map's first stage — drawing up guidelines for the new constitution — has been completed, and that took more than a decade. Critics say the plan is a ruse to allow the military to cling to power.

The U.N.'s special envoy for Myanmar meanwhile suggested Thursday that the country's military rulers be offered incentives to move toward democratic reforms.

U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari, visiting Indonesia on a six-nation tour to press Asia to take the lead to resolve the Myanmar crisis, also said China — the junta's top ally — could "continue to do more to really move the authorities in Myanmar" along the path of change.

"We are going to continue to see China as an ally," he told reporters.

Gambari said one approach could be "a combination of strong encouragement of the authorities in Myanmar to do the right thing along with some incentives to say that ... the world is not there just to punish Myanmar."

He did not elaborate, but his remarks come as the EU and countries such as the United States are widening sanctions imposed on the country.

Gambari met with junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe in Myanmar earlier this month, as well as twice with Suu Kyi, but he has so far failed to bring about a dialogue between the two sides.

The U.N. envoy is supposed to return to Myanmar in November, but has said he hopes he can move the date up. He has already visited Thailand and Malaysia, and will also stop in Japan, India and China.

State radio and television reported Thursday that 2,147 of 2,284 people detained in Yangon in connection with the protests have been released, leaving 137 under detention. Out of 643 people detained in other areas, 403 had been released and 240 remained in custody, it said.

However, authorities are still making arrests in connection with the protests.

Among those recently released are the country's best known comedian, as well as a popular actor and his wife who had been taken into detention last month for openly supporting the anti-government demonstrations.

Relatives and entertainment sources said Thursday that Zarganar, famed for his satirical jibes against the government, and actor Kyaw Thu along with his wife were released Wednesday. Zarganar had been held since Sept. 26 while Kyaw Thu and his wife were arrested Oct. 10.

London-based Amnesty International said Wednesday that an increasing number reports from Myanmar tell of deaths, torture, and a lack of food and medical treatment in overcrowded detention facilities across the country.

"The current arbitrary arrests, secret detention and widespread reports of ill-treatment and torture make a mockery of promises made by the Myanmar authorities to cooperate with the United Nations ... for early release of all political prisoners," a statement from the human rights group said.

The junta meanwhile continued its propaganda offensive against the pro-democracy movement. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Thursday that 48 blocks of TNT were found last week after investigations by authorities that led to U Kovida, a 23-year-old monk at Yangon's Nan Oo monastery.

He reportedly hid the explosives in the monastery and then moved them to another location, where they were found.

The state media has circulated many stories seeking to discredit or denigrate the pro-democracy demonstrators, most of whom were non-violent. It earlier described finding pornography and other unsuitable material in monks' quarters of monasteries that had been raided.

Gambari's suggestion of incentives is not a new one. In 1998, the United Nations and World Bank held secret talks with Myanmar's government and opposition leaders to offer the junta US$1 billion in financial and humanitarian aid if it would open a dialogue with the opposition.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also said this week that economic support could be given to Myanmar if it opens a dialogue with its opponents, including Suu Kyi.