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Myanmar unveils new national flag

YANGON, Myanmar – Military-ruled Myanmar unveiled a new national flag on Thursday, just two weeks before an election that the government calls a major step in a transition to democracy but critics say is a sham.

Government offices replaced the old standard with the new one at exactly 3 p.m. At a fire station in central Yangon, blue-uniformed officers lined up at attention during a replacement ceremony. In the capital Naypyitaw, Prime Minister Thein Sein led a flag-hoisting ceremony at the junta's headquarters, state television showed.

The new flag has horizontal stripes of yellow, green and red with a big white star in the middle.

The announcement of the new flag was made on state television just prior to the ceremonies, which were supposed to take place simultaneously all over the country.

The 2008 constitution pushed through by the military called for fresh national symbols, including a new flag whose colors of yellow, green and red would stand for solidarity, peace and tranquility, and courage and decisiveness. Still, the abrupt release of the new flag came as surprise.

"We received the instruction to bring down the old flag and to fly the new flag at 3 p.m.," said an education officer in Pathein township in Irrawaddy Division, who added that shortly before the ceremony his office still had not received its replacement. He declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

The peculiar timing suggested the influence of soothsayers and numerology, both immensely popular in Myanmar. The date was 21 — 2 plus 1 equals 3 — the time was 3:00 and the year was 2010, whose digits add up to three.

Added together they equal nine, an auspicious number is several Asian cultures, but especially Myanmar, which for a time in the late 1980s had bank notes in denominations of 45 and 90 kyats — numbers divisible by nine — reflecting the superstitious beliefs of the country's then-strongman, Gen. Ne Win.

The Nov. 7 election is the first since 1990, when the National League for Democracy party of detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory but was not allowed to take power. Critics of the junta charge that the new constitution and new election laws are written to ensure that the military continues to be the country's dominant political force.

A yellow, green and red flag was used during the Japanese occupation in 1943-1945, though the emblem in the center then was a dancing peacock. A fighting peacock is a symbol used by the country's democratic opposition, including Suu Kyi's now-disbanded party.

The flag being replaced — introduced by the socialist government of Ne Win in 1974 — has a red field with a blue rectangle in the left corner bearing a cog wheel and a rice plant encircled by 14 stars representing the country's seven regions and seven states.

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