Bangkok: Myanmar must end its repression of pro-democracy forces and allow public debate on a proposed constitution before holding a referendum in May, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
The referendum on a new charter “should be conducted in an atmosphere of freedom and respect for basic rights, and not as a hollow exercise in the military’s sham political reform process,” it said in a statement.
Myanmar’s military announced Saturday it would hold a referendum in May to set the stage for elections in 2010.
If held, the polls would be the first since 1990, when democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept to victory, only for the military to refuse to accept the result.
The announcement came amid mounting global pressure on the regime following its bloody crackdown on peaceful protests in September 2007, which left at least 31 people dead and 74 missing, according to the United Nations.
The US-based rights group said the May referendum lacks credibility due to the absence of open dialogue between the government and opposition groups.
“The question is whether Burma’s military government is willing to change course by allowing public debate and transparent voting in this referendum,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, referring to Myanmar’s former name.
“In light of its massive crackdown on protests last year, there are no signs that the government believes in openness or debate,” he said.
Human Rights Watch said last month about 100 people were killed during the September suppression, far more than the 15 dead reported by the junta.
“Burma’s military leaders appear to be using this referendum as a way of relieving international pressure on their dictatorship,” Adams said.
Analysts have argued planned elections could prove meaningless with Aung San Suu Kyi and other top democracy leaders locked away.
The 62-year-old Nobel peace prize winner has been confined to her home in Yangon for 12 of the last 18 years. The junta is set to extend her house arrest for another year in late May.
Apart from Aung San Suu Kyi and senior NLD members, the junta has also arrested top student leaders who rallied against it in 1988 in a far larger uprising that resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.
Many leaders of that uprising had been released over the last four years and returned to political activism, only be thrown back into prison.