YANGON (AFP) — Myanmar's military rulers declared a "victory" in concluding 14 years of constitutional talks Monday, as the junta clamped down on a rare string of protests by pro-democracy supporters.
Delegates to the secret talks held at a military base north of Yangon said the National Convention had finally concluded with a formal ceremony led by acting prime minister Thein Sein.
"Thein Sein said the National Convention has successfully concluded its work. He called it a victory for all people," one delegate to the talks told AFP by telephone.
The end of the convention completes what the junta claims is the first step on its "road map" to democracy, which in theory will lead to elections for the first time since 1990.
The long-delayed process ended amid a manhunt aimed at arresting the remaining leaders of peaceful protests that have taken place in Yangon and key provincial cities over the last two weeks.
Amnesty International says more than 150 people had been detained since August 19, when pro-democracy supporters began protesting against a massive hike in fuel prices.
Among those arrested was Min Ko Naing, considered Myanmar's top pro-democracy leader after detained Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
State media mentioned the protests for the first time on Monday, and accused Min Ko Naing of breaking a law that gives up to 20 years in prison for anyone convicted of criticising or disrupting the National Convention.
"Ordinary people were harmed because the marches organised by your group," the Myanmar-language newspaper The Mirror said.
"Everyone was confused because the foreign correspondents took photos of whatever they saw," the official newspaper said.
Myanmar has come under enormous pressure, led by the United States and Britain, demanding the release of the protesters.
Thailand-based analyst Win Min said the protests, combined with diplomatic pressure from neighbouring China, had encouraged the military to push the constitutional talks to a conclusion.
Many of the 1,000 delegates picked by the military came from ethnic minority groups, who were unhappy at their failure to win more autonomy from the junta during the convention, Win Min said.
The military appeared concerned that the protests could embolden the ethnic minorities to press for greater rights during the convention if the talks continued to drag on, he added.
"The junta is worried that these ethnic minority groups may join ongoing protests. It's better for the junta to finish it now," he said.
China, a major investor and trade partner for Myanmar, has also pressured the junta to finish the convention as a trade-off for shielding the country from western pressure at the UN Security Council.
"China wants to see stability in Burma. Rather than a government without a constitution, China wants to see a government with a constitution," Win Min said.
The National Convention has only drafted guidelines for a new charter in the country formerly known as Burma.
A committee will now be tasked with writing up the actual constitution, which would be brought before the public in a referendum that would eventually lead to elections.
No timetable has been set for the rest of the process, and analysts say the charter would bring little real change to Myanmar.
The charter will enshrine the military's role in government, guaranteeing the presidency to a retired soldier and barring Aung San Suu Kyi from running in an eventual election, they say.
A quarter of the seats in parliament would be reserved for the military, and be appointed by the commander in chief.
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