Burma (Myanmar) opens parliament but junta retains strong grip

Even as Burma (Myanmar) convened a new 600-person parliament Monday for the first time in nearly 50 years, the military appeared poised to retain its influence.

AFP Photo/MRTV/Newscom
This TV grab taken off Myanmar's state-run MRTV shows lawmakers taking part in the opening session of the country's new parliament in the capital Naypyidaw on January 31. Myanmar's new junta-dominated parliament opened on Monday as lawmakers assembled in secrecy following a widely panned election for the country's first legislative session since the late 1980s.

Burma (Myanmar) took another step Monday toward civilian rule after nearly five decades of military dictatorship with the convening of its new, semielected parliament. But the military seems set to retain its grip on the process, to the frustration of regime critics.

Monday’s joint parliamentary session in the regime’s purpose-built capital, Nyapyidaw, was the first since multiparty elections held in November. The US and other Western governments panned the poll, which were won overwhelmingly by a regime-backed party, as deeply flawed. A quarter of seats in the upper and lower houses are military appointees.

Some 600 legislators were bussed to the parliament complex under tight security, and reporters and other observers were kept away. Exiled Burmese news media reported that lawmakers were unable to bring cameras, mobile phones, and any recording devices to the parliament. Such secrecy has become a hallmark of Burmese politics.

The parliament does not have representation from the National League for Democracy, which refused to participate in the elections. The NLD's leader, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest a week after the poll and has since been rebuilding her political base in Rangoon, the former capital. The NLD won a previous election in 1990 but the military annulled the results.

Under Burma’s 2008 constitution, the joint parliament is tasked with selecting a president and two vice presidents, though a timetable on that remains unclear. The current junta that seized power in 1988 is supposed to then formally hand over power to the new executive, which is likely to be stuffed with former generals.

Exiled opposition groups have speculated that General Than Shwe, the outgoing junta chief, would seek the presidency. The military bloc in parliament has the right to nominate their own candidate and is allied to the United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which won 80 percent of contested seats.

Richard Horsey, an independent analyst of Burmese politics, says that Than Shwe is more likely to back another candidate as president. He argues that the junta chief has designed a political system in which the president, as head of state, must share power with the military commander in order to prevent another strongman emerging.

“He’s set the whole machine up so he can step back and take his hand off the lever without it blowing up in his face,” says Mr. Horsey, who is currently in Bangkok.

Opposition parties who contested November’s elections have faced criticism from the NLD and exiled Burmese groups who want to deny legitimacy to Burma’s transition of power. These groups have called on Western governments not to relax sanctions on the regime until there is more substantial democratic change.

Khin Maung Shwe, an official in the National Democratic Force, a breakaway NLD group that won 16 parliamentary seats, admitted that the gains were small but said that an election boycott served no purpose. He said his party would propose new laws and try to build alliances with like-minded lawmakers. “We have to be patient,” he says by phone from Rangoon.

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