YANGON (AFP) – Myanmar’s military handed power to a nominally civilian government after almost 50 years in power Wednesday, as the ruling junta was disbanded and a new president appointed.
Myanmar state television reported the junta’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) “has been officially dissolved”, quoting an order signed by Senior General Than Shwe.
Than Shwe, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1992, was referred to only as “chairman of the SPDC” in the report and has apparently been replaced as army chief.
But despite the changes the military retains a firm grip on power in Myanmar, and many analysts believe Than Shwe will attempt to retain some sort of control behind the scenes.
The SPDC, previously known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, seized power in 1988, but Myanmar has been under military authority since 1962.
The historic announcement of the nominal end of its rule came after an official said a new army chief attended the inauguration of Thein Sein — a close ally of Than Shwe — as president, apparently indicating the junta head had been replaced.
General Min Aung Hlaing was present at the swearing-in as Commander in Chief of the country’s army, a post held by Than Shwe until now, according to the official.
“It’s not clear yet whether he has officially taken up this position,” the official said.
Prime Minister Thein Sein, who shed his army uniform to contest controversial elections last year, was formally sworn in as president, the official added.
He was named in February for the top job in the new parliament, where the military hierarchy retains a stranglehold on power.
“Altogether 58 new cabinet members including the president, two vice-presidents, officials and ministers were sworn in this morning at the Union Parliament” in Naypyidaw, the official added.
The apparent new army chief, 54-year-old Min Aung Hlaing, is part of a younger generation of Myanmar generals.
He was headmaster at the Defence Services Academy and a commander of the so-called golden triangle region, near the country’s borders with Laos and Thailand.
Myanmar also replaced signs referring to its junta on Wednesday, officials said.
Ceremonies were held across the country as the names of government offices were changed to reflect the new political system, which came into effect after an election last November that critics say was a sham to entrench military power.
Across Myanmar, “Peace and Development Council” offices, echoing the name of outgoing State Peace and Development Council, were renamed “General Administrative Departments”, officials said.
The signs are now a slightly lighter shade of green, similar to the colour used by Thein Sein’s junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which claimed an overwhelming majority in the poll.
The formation of a national assembly in Naypyidaw, convened for the first time at the end of January, takes the country towards the final stage of the junta’s so-called “roadmap” to a “disciplined democracy”.
A quarter of the parliamentary seats were kept aside for the military even before the country’s first poll in 20 years, which was marred by the absence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and claims of cheating and intimidation.
USDP lawmakers bagged 388 of the national legislature’s 493 elected seats.
Suu Kyi has no voice in the new parliament. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party was disbanded for opting to boycott the vote because the rules seemed designed to bar her from participating.
The election, and Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest a few days later, have reignited a debate about economic sanctions enforced by the United States and European Union because of Myanmar’s human rights abuses.