Burma’s military government has moved to block effective coverage of the National Convention that opens on 17 May. The authorities have refused journalists visas, subjected them to intimidation, slapped on advance censorship and secured the convention centre.
With four days to go, the government appears incapable of allowing discussion of a draft constitution to take place in the necessary calm and openness.
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) and the Burma Media Association urged Prime Minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt, to grant visas to all Burmese and foreign journalist who applied, to stop advance censorship, to set up a press centre with international communications and to free imprisoned journalists.
The two organisations also called on the head of the military government to release Nay Min, former BBC source who has been sentenced to 15 years in prison.
"His arrest and sentence only add to the pressure on Burmese journalists doing their best to provide news for foreign media," said Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association.
Lawyer Nay Min, aged around 55, was re-arrested in February 2004. He was sentenced on 7 May at a special court within the walls of Insein prison. He had already spent eight years in prison for "spreading false rumours".
He is respected by many of his Burmese colleagues as a very experienced professional. The military secret services accused him of sending information to foreign-based organisations, including media.
Four others, including Nyan Htun Linn, a student activist and former office manager of a Thailand-based news website www.amyinthit.com, were also given long prison sentences. Nyan Htun Linn was sentenced to 22 years in prison for having released, particularly to journalists, a statement criticising National Convention procedures.
Dozens of foreign journalists, including Agence France-Presse, Voice of America, and the Burmese and English services of the BBC World Service, who applied for visas to cover the convention, received no reply from the Burmese authorities. However a Bangkok-based foreign journalist was given permission to travel to Rangoon.
The National Convention is being held at Nyaunghnapin around 40 kms north of Rangoon. Several sources confirmed that there is no mobile phone network coverage for the building, which is close to a military camp. The journalists will have great trouble meeting the hundreds of delegates.
The delegates risk jail sentences of five to 20 years if they "disseminate" a speech or statement not authorised by the convention’s working committee that is controlled by the authorities.
A delegate for the National League for Democracy (NLD) was in 1996, sentenced to 20 years in prison for giving journalists a document that had not been passed by the committee.
Moreover advance censorship is always applied to privately-owned publications in Rangoon, which are banned from freely reporting on preparations for the Convention and the position of the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest.
To ease international pressure, the military junta announced the opening of a National Convention on 17 May 2004 to write a new constitution. Neither the main democratic party, the NLD, nor the majority of ethnic minority parties have confirmed their participation. The government imposes the rules of the Convention, which was interrupted in 1996 after the withdrawal of the NLD.