Myanmar's ruling junta chief confirmed Monday that the country's first general elections in two decades will be held this year but gave no date for the balloting, which is expected to exclude pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In a message marking the anniversary of Myanmar's 1948 independence from Britain, Senior Gen. Than Shwe said that the regime's "seven-step" roadmap is the only way for the country to move toward democracy.
The roadmap is the junta's program for shifting from nearly 50 years of military rule. A key step in that process was a constitution adopted in a 2008 referendum widely criticized as authoritarian. The constitution guarantees a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military. The final step in the roadmap is the elections.
"Plans are under way to hold the elections in a systematic way this year and the entire people have to make correct choices," Than Shwe said in a message printed in state-run newspapers. The message did not clarify what was meant by "correct choices" but was widely assumed to urge voters to support military-backed political parties.
Critics say the process will merely perpetuate military rule under a civilian guise. Suu Kyi, who recently had her house arrest extended by 18 months, will be unable to participate in the balloting.
The junta has yet to pass necessary elections laws for the 2010 vote or set a date.
Myanmar gained independence from Britain on Jan. 4, 1948, after more than 120 years of colonial rule. It has been under harsh military rule since 1962. The current junta emerged in 1988 after violently suppressing mass pro-democracy protests. It held a general election in 1990, but refused to recognize the results after a landslide victory by Suu Kyi's party.
Her National League for Democracy marked Independence Day at party headquarters in Yangon Monday with a gathering of some 400 party members, diplomats and supporters. More than 50 plainclothes policemen observed and videotaped the meeting from across the street.
The party reiterated its call for the release from detention of its party leaders and all other political prisoners and for the reopening of branch offices which were shut down in 2003.
The United States congratulated the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, on the 62nd anniversary of its independence, and said it looked forward to the day when they could "exercise freely their universal human rights."
State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States "stands ready to take steps to improve bilateral relations based on reciprocal and meaningful efforts by the Burmese government to fulfill the Burmese people's democratic aspirations."
Than Shwe on Monday warned people to "remain vigilant at all times against dangers posed by neocolonialists." "Neocolonialists" normally refers to Western nations that have been sharply critical of the regime's human rights record and brutal crackdowns on any protests.