The absence of the Nobel peace laureate, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections in 1990 by a landslide but was denied power by the military, has stripped Monday’s convention of what little credibility it had, diplomats say.

The NLD opted out of the talks last week after the junta refused to free Suu Kyi and NLD vice chairman Tin Oo from a year of house arrest. They were detained last May after clashes between NLD and pro-government supporters.

A total of 1076 delegates from all walks of life in the former Burma - most of them hand-picked by the government - turned up for the talks in a tightly guarded military compound about 45km from the capital.

"In the interests of the nation and the people, the emergence of a state constitution is the duty of all citizens of this country," said convention head Lieutenant-General Thein Sein.

No mention of Suu Kyi

In opening remarks to an audience including generals in full military regalia and most of the diplomatic corps, he made no mention of the boycotting NLD members or Suu Kyi.

"They can compromise with those who have been fighting for over 40 years, but they can't do so with us, who have no weapons. What does this mean?"

U Lwin,
NLD party secretary

Representatives from the United States and the European Union, which have slapped sanctions on Yangon over Suu Kyi's detention, did not attend.

One Yangon-based diplomat described Monday's opening session as "bizarre" and said it showed the talks lacked credibility.

"It came across as just a photo opportunity for the government. The chairman gave a 10 minute speech and then it all broke up for photos," the diplomat said.

As the first participants arrived over the weekend, state television showed delegates playing golf and touring the Nyaung Hnapin Ground compound, where amenities include an in-house gym, beauty parlour and karaoke lounge.

NLD frustrated

There was less serenity at the NLD's Yangon headquarters, where the phones had been disconnected by authorities.

The opposition leadership is frustrated the junta is happy to negotiate ceasefires with many of the rebel groups it has been fighting for decades, but refuses to talk to the NLD or heed to its requests for a more open and fair convention.

Democracy leader Aung San Suu
Kyi remains under house arrest

"They can compromise with those who have been fighting for over 40 years, but they can't do so with us, who have no weapons. What does this mean?" said party secretary U Lwin.

Suu Kyi and Tin Oo were not among the 54 NLD delegates invited to the conference. Foreign journalists have also been barred, although local employees of international news organisations have been given some access.

Outside the Myanmar embassy in the Thai capital, Bangkok, about a dozen students protested against the junta, with banners bearing pictures of Suu Kyi above slogans proclaiming "Free our national leader".

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government has a policy of 'constructive engagement' with its diplomatically isolated neighbour, suggested Bangkok had been misled over Suu Kyi's detention.

"We understood they would release her in time to attend the meeting," he told reporters. "I am quite concerned."