At the Rangoon international airport, Burma’s military government is building a new airport terminal. Though the work is far from complete, authorities have already set up the arrival hall in the half-finished structure, so arriving is rather like walking through a construction site.
After getting off the second-hand Japanese bus that ferries passengers from the plane to the unfinished structure, I am rushed through a billowing cloud of cement dust, towards a tiny door surrounded by wooden planks sealing off other areas. Construction workers stare as people, mainly foreigners, pour into the bare, cavernous hall.
The spartan arrivals hall is crowded with an odd assortment of western travellers, a handful of Burmese returning home from overseas trips, and a large tour group of laughing, boisterous Thais. Thais have begun travelling in large numbers to Burma, a neighbouring Buddhist country with which Thailand has long had fraught relations.
But on this morning, there is another distinct group in the arrivals hall: a large contingent of foreign journalists – mainly Japanese, but also some Westerners – who have been given permission to come to cover the resumption of Burma’s controversial National Convention.
For journalists, access to Burma is always rather unpredictable. The military junta does sporadically issue journalist visas, but it seems they go through phases when they are more, or less, willing to let the media in – attitudes that probably depend on changing internal conditions. The government also supposedly maintains blacklists of banned reporters, though the criteria for getting blacklisted remains opaque.
Frustrated with their inability to get in to report officially, some western journalists slip into Burma on tourist visas. Though getting caught by authorities – either during or after the trip - is one of the sure known ways to get blacklisted.
I have been lucky recently. Last month, I spent ten days in Rangoon – my first trip to the country after several tumultuous years when access for foreign journalists was fairly limited. Now, just a few weeks later, I am here again, this time, with a batch of nearly 40 others. All of us have been issued five-day visas, and formal invitations to attend the opening ceremony of the National Convention, now starting its third session since May 2004.
Drafting a new constitution for the country is supposed to be the first step in a seven-step “roadmap for democracy” that Gen Khin Nyunt — then the prime minister — unveiled in August 2003. Gen Khin Nyunt has since been purged from the government, and is now under house arrest, but the junta, led by Senior-Gen Than Shwe, insists it remains committed to the roadmap.
Many western countries dismiss the constitutional convention as a sham, calling it little more than an attempt to dress up military rule and make it look more acceptable. But the military regime wants to convince a sceptical world that the constitutional convention is more than just a political make-over job, and indeed a serious effort to fulfil the Burmese population’s aspirations for democracy. Hence, our presence here.
Armed with my visa and a “Certificate Authorising Media Work in the Union of Myanmar” given to me by the Burmese embassy in Bangkok, I am quickly stamped in by a pretty young immigration officer wearing a crisp white uniform. I grab my suitcase, and breeze past bored looking customs inspectors, who show little interested in me or my bag.
A few hours later, I find myself in a hot, still room on the grounds of a colonial era racecourse, where top a figures of the National Convention Convening Committee are holding a rare press conference for the visiting media. Presumably, this is their big push to correct any misperceptions we may hold about the constitutional proceedings.
U Aung Toe, Burma’s chief justice and vice-chair of the convening committee, begins with a lengthy presentation outlining the history, and basic facts about the convention, and criticising the National League for Democracy for failing to attend the talks despite the government’s invitation. Overcome by the heat, a western wire service correspondent sitting next to me struggles to stay awake, as do several of the elderly gentlemen from the convention committee on the speaker’s platform.
But when it is time for questions and answers, things liven up. As many outsiders suspect the regime has no intention of ever finishing the constitutional convention, I ask Mr U Aung Toe if he can estimate how many more sessions would be required to complete the remaining sections of the constitution. But before he can respond, Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, the information minister — who I interviewed on my trip last month, intervenes.
“I already told you that the last time we met,” he lightly scolds me, in English before switching to Burmese. “We can’t push and hasten the process for bringing about democracy…. How long it will take is not important in relation to other matters.”
“What is important is to bring about democracy with full essence, systematically,” he continues grandly, through the translator, relaxed and clearly enjoying the spotlight.
“How long it will take depends on how many hardships on obstacles are posed on our way by the internal and external destructive elements ... We want to convince the lady from the Financial Times we are eager to complete the process as soon as possible.”
Other journalists inquire about the surprise move of the capital to Pyinmana in central Burma, and the cost of building the city, prompting a broad, amused grin from Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan. He dismisses the journalists’ question, saying the cost is “not that important” though he assures us that the government carrying out the move, “step-by-step” with great care to avoid disturbing ministry functions.
Finally, the wire service colleague seated next to me, revived, inquires about the recent extension of the house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, prompting another grin – sheepish, embarrassed – from the minister. “Our matter here is concerned only with the national convention,” he declares. Then suddenly, my first-ever Burmese government press conference is adjourned.