April 20, 2008 / 8:30 AM / 11 years ago

Myanmar arrests keep pressure on "no" campaign

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s junta is intensifying its campaign of intimidation against dissidents, and conducting a propaganda drive, to ensure its new constitution gets passed in a referendum next month, opposition leaders said on Sunday.

At least 60 people have been arrested in Sittwe, capital of northwest Rakhine state, since last week’s traditional New Year celebrations for wearing T-shirts urging people to vote “No” in the May 10 plebiscite.

“More than 30 have been released but at least 20 are still in detention, and the arrests are still going on,” Ko Thein Hlaing, a senior member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in Rakhine, told Reuters.

The NLD, whose leader Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, is leading the campaign to reject the constitution, which has been drafted over the last 14 years by an army-picked committee.

The NLD boycotted the process because of Suu Kyi’s detention, and refuses to accept some of the main clauses of the charter, in particular those guaranteeing the army 25 percent of seats in parliament and the right to suspend the constitution at will.

Other underground opposition groups are also pushing for the former Burma’s 53 million people to reject the charter, most notably the “88 Generation Students” who led a brutally crushed 1988 uprising against decades of military rule.

In addition to the Sittwe arrests, NLD spokesman Nyan Win said one party official had been arrested in Yangon for putting up a “No” poster, and several other party members had been beaten or assaulted for campaigning.

Perhaps mindful of 1990, when they allowed an election only to suffer a humiliating defeat — which they then ignored — to Suu Kyi’s NLD, the generals are also pulling out all the propaganda stops to ensure the charter passes.

State-run MRTV has been broadcasting programmes and songs calling for a “Yes”, while government workers and soldiers have also received orders on how to vote.

Regime-controlled newspapers have also been carrying slogans, articles, commentaries and poems urging people to vote in favour.

“To approve the State Constitution is a national duty of the entire people today,” the New Light of Myanmar, the junta’s official mouthpiece, blared in a front-page headline.

Inside, the paper carried a sinister commentary accusing dissidents of being “the axe-handles and mouthpiece of the colonialists”.

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Bill Tarrant

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