Army-ruled Myanmar said on Saturday it will hold a referendum on a new constitution in May followed by elections in 2010, a move critics said was aimed at deflecting pressure after last year's crackdown on protesters.
"We have achieved success in economic, social and other sectors and in restoring peace and stability," the junta announced on state television four months after the army crushed monk-led pro-democracy protests, killing at least 31 people.
"So multi-party, democratic elections will be held in 2010," said the statement issued in the name of Secretary Number One Lieutenant-General Tin Aung Myint Oo, a top member of the junta.
The elections would be the first held in the former Burma since 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a multi-party poll later rejected by the military, which has ruled in various guises since 1962.
The NLD, which boycotted a constitution-drafting convention while its leader, Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest, called the announcement "erratic".
"They have now fixed a date for the election before knowing the results of the referendum. I can't help but wonder how the referendum will be conducted," NLD spokesman Nyan Win said.
The Burma Campaign UK, a pro-democracy group, dismissed it as "public relations spin" and "nothing to do with democracy".
"It is no coincidence that the announcement comes at a time when the regime is facing increasing economic sanctions following its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations," Campaign director Mark Farmaner said in a statement.
Britain's Foreign Office called for the release of Suu Kyi and other detained political leaders to ensure a "genuine and inclusive process of national reconciliation".
A role for Suu Kyi?
The junta's announcement did not make clear whether the NLD would be allowed to take part in the election, but the constitution is believed likely to disbar Suu Kyi from office by ruling out anyone married to a foreigner.
Suu Kyi's husband, British academic Michael Aris, died in 1999.
After 14 years of working out the principles for a "disciplined" democracy, a committee of mainly military officers and civil servants assigned last year to draft the constitution would finish its work soon, the statement said.
"A nationwide referendum will be held in May 2008 to ratify the newly drafted constitution," it said.
Snippets of its basic principles that have appeared in state-controlled media do not point to any transfer of power to a civilian administration, or greater autonomy for Myanmar's 100-plus ethnic minorities.
The commander-in-chief of the army will be the most powerful man in the country, able to appoint key ministers and assume power "in times of emergency".
The military will hold 25 percent of seats in the new parliament, and hold veto power over parliamentary decisions.
"This is a move away from democracy, not towards it," Farmaner said, adding "the regime will do everything it can to fix the outcome of the referendum and elections".
The military government announced the seven-step roadmap in 2003 but had refused to set a firm timetable until now.
Some Southeast Asia neighbours have been increasingly critical of Myanmar's foot-dragging on reforms, while the West has tried to pressure China, one of Myanmar's few friends, to coax the generals to change.
Beijing, which has interests in Myanmar's resource wealth such as natural gas and timber, has refused to back sanctions against the regime. But last month it urged the regime to allow U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to return to Myanmar soon to promote a genuine dialogue between the junta and opposition.
There was no immediate reaction from Gambari to the junta's announcement but diplomats in New York said the United Nations was likely to be disappointed as it had been pushing for an all-inclusive democratic process.
The junta has sought to delay Gambari's next visit, which would be his third since last September's crackdown, until April but he has been pushing for an earlier date.
Rights groups have seized upon the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games as a chance to exert pressure on China for everything from the conflict in Darfur to Beijing's support of Myanmar's junta.
"China may have put pressure on them to announce something acceptable. They may have used the Olympic Games as a bargaining chip," a Yangon-based Asian diplomat said.