NAYPYIDAW – 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.
No foreign media representatives were allowed to witness the event or even take photographs of the new parliament building where elected and designated lawmakers convened in the military regime’s purpose-built capital, Naypyidaw.
“Parliament started at 8:55 (am, 0225 GMT). All members attended,” a Myanmar official told AFP on condition of anonymity, while police manned checkpoints and barricades leading up to the chambers.
The timing — almost certainly a product of the regime’s penchant for astrology — was just one aspect of the new parliament, peculiar to a nation that has withered under the iron grip of military rule since 1962.
Myanmar activists and analysts were divided over whether Monday’s opening heralded at least a small step towards positive political change or simply consolidated the power of the military behind a semblance of civilian rule.
After a rare election in November marred by the absence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and claims of cheating and intimidation, the junta was set to easily dominate Myanmar’s first parliamentary session in two decades.
The formation of the national parliament in Naypyidaw and 14 regional assemblies takes the country towards the final stage of the junta’s so-called “roadmap” to a “disciplined democracy”, conceived in 2003.
But a quarter of the seats were kept aside for the military even before the vote, and the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party claimed an overwhelming victory, giving it 388 of the national parliament’s 493 elected seats.
The opposition National Democratic Force (NDF), which split from the NLD in order to contest the vote, has a total of 12 seats in the legislature’s two chambers, and the Democratic Party (Myanmar) has none.
While the regime may have been planning for years, the lawmakers themselves were in the dark about their roles in the parliament, where proceedings may remain secret and rules ban recording devices, computers and mobile phones.
“No one really knows how the parliaments will be organised. We will know when we get there,” said Soe Win, an NDF legislator.
“My feeling is that we are moving one step forward.”
Suu Kyi, released from seven consecutive years under house arrest a few days after the polls, was less optimistic in a Financial Times interview published this weekend, downplaying the impact of political changes.
“I don’t think the elections mean there is going to be any kind of real change in the political process,” she was quoted as saying. “I was released because my term was up. There is nothing strange about it.”
The crucial question of who will be the country’s next president has yet to be discussed openly, although Thura Shwe Mann, the former army number three, and prime minister Thein Sein have recently been linked with the top spot.
Senior General Than Shwe, who has dominated the country since taking power in 1992, is now 77 but analysts say the strongman is reluctant to relinquish his hold completely.
Once appointed, the president will select a government, and can be confident of little resistance from a parliament dominated by the military and its cronies.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will not have a voice after it was disbanded for opting to boycott the election, while the two main opposition parties that decided to participate and won seats are political minnows.
In total across the national and regional legislatures the USDP has 882 seats out of 1,154, the NDF 16 and the Democratic Party (Myanmar) just three.
Parties from the country’s diverse ethnic minority regions have a little more clout than the democracy parties and want to speak up for their areas, which many feel have long been neglected.
“Even though fully controlled by the junta, this process is a first in the recent institutional history of the country,” said Renaud Egreteau, a Myanmar specialist at the University of Hong Kong.