Monday, January 31, 2011

Myanmar Opens Parliament for First Time Since the ’80s

Myanmar’s ruling generals on Monday convened the first meeting of Parliament in more than two decades, a move they say completes the impoverished country’s transition to a multiparty democracy.

Reporters were barred from the Parliament building when the session was convened Monday morning under tight security in the capital, Naypyidaw, the Associated Press reported.

Officially the opening of the two-chamber Parliament will mean the dissolution of the junta that has ruled Myanmar since 1988, when the country was known as Burma.
But it does not appear to be the dawn of unfettered democracy. A quarter of the seats are reserved for the military, and a military-backed party controls more than 80 percent of the rest, allowing the generals to effectively retain their power, albeit in a less hierarchical system.

“The military is staying in control, but some of them are taking off their uniforms,” said Win Min, a professor at Payap University in Thailand who is on leave in the United States.

One key question is whether Myanmar’s top general, Than Shwe, will become president, the most powerful job under the new Constitution, but one that would require him to resign as commander in chief.

Gen. Than Shwe, who has successfully crushed uprisings and purged potential rivals inside the military during his nearly two decades in power, turns 78 on Wednesday, according to a government booklet published three decades ago. (The military government has been so secretive that even the birthday of the country’s top leader is not known with certainty.)

Myanmar’s new system will resemble a democracy more in form than in substance, analysts say, but with the possibility of more debate and inclusiveness than under the junta’s top-down rule. Myanmar’s news media in exile has reported that questions in Parliament must be submitted by members 10 days in advance and pass a vetting process.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of open, democratic governance during these first five years,” said Priscilla A. Clapp, who was the chief of mission at the United States Embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002. “But with a system that is so much more complex, inevitably competing centers of power will develop.”

The opening of Parliament, which follows elections in November, is only one of a number of changes inside Myanmar.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the country’s leading dissident, was freed from house arrest a week after the elections and is now seeking to rebuild her pro-democracy movement. The military government, meanwhile, is aggressively selling off buildings, factories and state-run companies, mostly to allies and family members of the country’s military leaders. The rush to privatization vaguely resembles the vast sell-off in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Neighboring countries have responded by pushing harder to end Myanmar’s international isolation, including an effort to lift the economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union and other Western countries.

The two chambers of Parliament and representatives from the military will nominate three vice presidents, one of whom will be elected president and choose a cabinet. Names of potential cabinet members circulating in Myanmar in recent days included many of the people who held positions of power under the military government.
Parliament last met in Myanmar under the one-party rule of Gen. Ne Win, who formally retired from politics in 1988 during a time of unrest, but the country has not had a genuine multiparty system since 1962, when the military took power in a coup.
New York Times

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