Burma's military government has opened what it says is the final round of a national convention designed to finalize the basic principles of a new constitution. The drafting process has been running on and off for 14 years, and the government's critics say the exercise is only a ploy by the military to entrench its long rule over the country.
More than one thousand delegates, most of them hand-picked by the military, are gathered at a convention center about 40 kilometers north of Rangoon, Burma's main city.
Their task is to finish setting the principles for the constitution, the first step in what Burma's military rulers are calling a seven-step road map to democracy. This will supposedly be followed by a referendum on the constitution, and free elections.
The military junta has not said who will actually be writing the constitution once the principles are finalized. Nor has it said when there will be a vote on the finished document. It has also set no timetable for completing its so-called road map.
Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, calls the whole exercise a sham.
"When people use this term 'road map for democracy', they are living in an illusory world�There never was a roadmap to democracy. There was a road map to a reformed political system that would have kept the military in charge of the country."
Western governments, Burmese exiles and many members of the country's ethnic minority groups echo Adams' view, saying the purpose of the discussions is merely to cement military rule.
They decry the fact that opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy are not taking part in the drafting process. The group walked out of the talks more than 10 years ago, saying the military was manipulating the proceedings. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the past 17 years under some form of detention.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Burma in an effort to get the military to release her from house arrest and generally improve human rights. But Adams, of Human Rights Watch, says the sanctions have not worked, primarily because Burma's neighbors, China and India, are eagerly cultivating the junta so they can tap the country's vast natural resources.
"Because the military regime is doing so well in its neighborhood now - it has such strong relationships with China and India, so much money coming in - it's hard to see what incentive they have to change the way things are. They are, very sadly, in the driver's seat right now."
The United Nations Secretary General's special advisor on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, said recently that the best way to deal with the military government is to recognize what he called its slow but positive steps toward democracy. At the same time, he said, the junta should be encouraged to move even further along the lines of democratization and respect for human rights.