Myanmar's ruling junta chief has confirmed the country's first general elections in two decades will be held this year but no date for the balloting, which is expected to exclude pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been given. In a message marking the anniversary of Myanmar's 1948 independence from Britain, Senior General Than Shwe said the regime's "seven-step" roadmap is the only way for the country to move toward democracy. The roadmap is the junta's program for shifting from nearly 50 years of military rule.
A key step in that process was a constitution adopted in a 2008 referendum widely criticised as authoritarian. The constitution guarantees a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military. The final step in the roadmap is the elections. "Plans are under way to hold the elections in a systematic way this year and the entire people have to make correct choices," Than Shwe said in a message printed in state-run newspapers. The message did not clarify what was meant by "correct choices" but was widely assumed to urge voters to support military-backed political parties. Critics say the process will merely perpetuate military rule under a civilian guise.
Suu Kyi, who recently had her house arrest extended by 18 months, will be unable to participate in the balloting. The junta has yet to pass necessary elections laws for the 2010 vote or set a date. Myanmar gained independence from Britain on January 4, 1948, after more than 120 years of colonial rule. It has been under harsh military rule since 1962. The current junta emerged in 1988 after violently suppressing mass pro-democracy protests.
It held a general election in 1990, but refused to recognise the results after a landslide victory by Suu Kyi's party. Her National League for Democracy marked Independence Day at party headquarters in Yangon today with a gathering of 400 party members, diplomats and supporters. More than 50 plainclothes policemen observed and videotaped the meeting from across the street. The party reiterated its call for the release from detention of its party leaders and all other political prisoners and for the reopening of branch offices which were shut down in 2003.
The United States congratulated the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, on the 62nd anniversary of its independence, and said it looked forward to the day when they could "exercise freely their universal human rights". *AP