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Activists launch underground campaign against Myanmar charter

BANGKOK (AFP) - Myanmar's pro-democracy leaders have been arrested or forced into hiding, while their speeches and leaflets have been outlawed, and they have no access to the media.

But activists say they are defying the pressure and have launched an underground campaign against a constitution drafted by the nation's military rulers, who plan to put it to a referendum in May.

The 88 Generation Student Group, which kicked off the mass protests that shook the regime last year, says it is getting its message out through secretly distributed fliers and T-shirts, and emails passed clandestinely at Internet cafes.

Since speeches have been outlawed, the group is making video recordings on CDs that are copied and passed anonymously through Myanmar's main city of Yangon.

"In this way, we make our campaign in secret," said Tun Myint Aung, who is leading the group with a handful of other activists while living in hiding from the authorities.

"We are asking our people to go to the polling station and vote 'No.' The authorities have no right to arrest anyone for voting 'No.' Let's show the enormous power of the people," he told AFP in Bangkok, speaking by telephone from a secret location inside Myanmar.

"In this way, we reject the military constitution and we reject everything that was made by the military government," he said.

Tun Myint Aung's group is made up of former student leaders who spearheaded a pro-democracy uprising in August 1988.

The military crushed the protests by massacring students, with demonstrations and violent reprisals gripping the nation for five days. At least 3,000 people were killed, and more than 10,000 students fled into exile.

Tun Myint Aung, like most of the others who were arrested then, served a decade in prison but returned to activism upon his release three years ago.

The freed student leaders, now mostly in their 40s, rebuilt their network of activists and began new protests in August last year, harnessing public anger at a surprise hike in fuel prices.

The junta tried to stamp out the movement by arresting the group's most prominent leaders, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi.

But Buddhist monks took up the cause, eventually bringing more than 100,000 people into the streets of Yangon in September, until the military launched a deadly crackdown.

At least 31 people were killed while hundreds remain behind bars, according to the United Nations. A UN report earlier this month said that since the crackdown, the regime has actually stepped up unlawful arrests over the protests.

Tun Myint Aung has managed to evade authorities by living in hiding since August.

"I'm not afraid of jail, but I'm afraid of not doing my work," he said. "I always struggle, I always take action to dismiss the military dictatorship. If I am in jail, I can't," he said.

He said the protests last year showed that the public wanted an end to military rule.

"There is no need to hold a referendum in May. The September movement was a real referendum. People don't want military rule. People showed that," Tun Myint Aung said.

Voters in Myanmar have not been to the ballot box since 1990, when they handed Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party a landslide victory in parliamentary polls.

During that election, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was under house arrest, as she is now.

The NLD's leadership has not been allowed to meet with her since the junta last month announced its plans for the referendum and multiparty elections for 2010.

Without her guidance, the party has not taken a clear position on the referendum, saying only that the constitution "cannot be accepted by the people" -- but without calling for a "No" vote or a boycott.

But Tun Myint Aung said youth members of NLD were working with his group to campaign for voters to turn out in force to reject the charter.

"If they cheat in force to win the referendum, we will keep fighting for our freedom," he said.

"The military government, they don't want to abandon their throne, not even to share power with the civilians."

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