YANGON, Myanmar Myanmar's military government, a target of sharp international criticism for failing to hand over power to a democratically elected government, announced Saturday that it will hold elections in 2010.
The junta also said a national referendum to approve a new constitution will be held in May.
"The time has now come to change from military rule to democratic civilian rule," official announcements on state radio and television said.
The country's last election was in 1990, but the military refused to hand over power when Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party won. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been in prison or under house arrest for more than 12 of the past 18 years.
It was the first time the government has set dates for stages of its so-called road map to democracy.
But the announcement was unlikely to mollify critics who say that the proposed constitution will likely be unfair and undemocratic.
Suu Kyi's party reacted cautiously, noting the lack of detail on how the referendum would be carried out.
"The announcement is vague, incomplete and strange," said spokesman Nyan Win.
"Even before knowing the results of the referendum, the government has already announced that elections will be held in 2010," he said, implying that the government was certain that the draft constitution will be approved.
Scheduling the constitutional referendum for May makes it difficult for critics to mount a campaign against it. Most of the country's leading pro-democracy activists are in jail, many in connection with anti-government demonstrations in August and September.
After violently quelling the protests, the junta came under increased international pressure to work toward political reconciliation and quickly return to democracy. At least 30 people died in the crackdown, according to a U.N. estimate.
Britain, one of the military's regime's harshest critics, noted that Suu Kyi and other independent political leaders had not been consulted about the constitution or the election process.
"A genuine and inclusive process of national reconciliation" is necessary for Myanmar's transition to democracy, Britain's Foreign Office said, calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962 and has not had a constitution since the last one was scrapped in 1988, when the army brutally put down earlier pro-democracy demonstrations.
The country has been in a political deadlock since the military refused to recognize the 1990 election results, saying the country first needed a new constitution.
Guidelines for a new constitution were adopted by a national convention last year, and a government-appointed commission is now drafting the document.
Critics have denounced the constitutional convention process as a farce because the military hand-picked most delegates and Suu Kyi could not attend.
The National League for Democracy said the junta was trying to draft a constitution unilaterally, and it therefore "could not be expected to guarantee democracy, human rights and public well-being."
Myanmar's ethnic minority groups, some of whom have been seeking greater autonomy for decades, say the constitution would give the central government greater powers even as minorities seek more administrative and judicial autonomy in their home areas.
A clause in the draft guidelines guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in the country's parliament, with the representatives nominated by the commander in chief.
The new constitution also disqualifies presidential candidates who are "entitled to the rights and privileges of a ... foreign country" thereby barring Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British.