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Junta calls convention in 'fear-filled' Burma

Tokyo - Burma's military junta today convenes a national convention to begin the process of drafting a constitution, which in theory should lead to elections for a civilian government, writes Terry McCarthy. But few Burmese believe the generals are ready to hand over power in the forseeable future, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader under house arrest since July 1989, is registering her own protest by refusing to accept outside offers of food.

The junta - the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) - has recently tried to persuade the world that it is relaxing its steely grip on the population, by releasing some political prisoners and dropping several provisions of the martial law under which it has ruled since 1988. But, said a diplomat in Bangkok, 'the stories coming out of Burma are horrific'. Thousands of people are being forcibly relocated in border areas to cut them off from ethnic minorities whom the Burmese army has been fighting for decades. There are still an estimated 1,500 political prisoners, and those who have been released are too cowed to speak up. 'The fact is, the whole country is living in a climate of fear.'

Against this background, it is unlikely that any delegates to the convention, all hand-picked by Slorc, will dare to speak out against the military as they debate the framework of a future constitution.