Myanmar opened its first parliament in more than two decades Monday, an event greeted with cautious optimism by opposition lawmakers despite the military's tight management of the event.
The military and its allies hold more than 80 percent of the seats in both houses of parliament, ensuring that the army exercises control over the wheels of power, as it has since a 1962 coup deposed the last legitimately elected legislature. A single-party parliament under the late dictator Gen. Ne Win was abolished in 1988 after the army crushed a pro-democracy uprising.
The 440-seat lower house and 224-seat upper house were opened simultaneously at 8:55 a.m. (0225 GMT) in a massive new building in Naypyitaw, the remote city to which the capital was moved from Yangon in 2005. The 14 regional parliaments, whose members were also elected last November, opened at the same time.
In the afternoon, the two houses convened together, and legislative officers were elected, according to Dr. Khin Shwe, a business tycoon and upper house representative of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Thura Shwe Mann, who had been the junta's third-ranking member and retired from the military to run for election with the USDP, was picked to be speaker of the lower house, and the junta's Culture Minister Khin Aung Myint, named speaker of the upper house, Khin Shwe said. The election of a vice president was scheduled for Tuesday, while the timing for picking a president was not yet clear.
With its allies controlling parliament and loyalists - many recently retired senior junta members - expected to fill top government posts, the military will be keeping a tight grip on the reins of power. The 2008 constitution, drafted under the junta's guidance and with provisions ensuring the military's dominance, also came into effect Monday.
Roads leading to the parliament building were sealed off with roadblocks manned by armed police. Delegates wearing traditional attire and representatives of ethnic minorities in the garb of their respective groups were bused from state guest houses to the site. Each bus was checked for bombs as they entered the compound.
Reporters, diplomats and the public at large were barred from witnessing the proceedings inside. Publicity for the event has been low-key, though Myanmar state television Monday night showed footage of the opening.
Delegates are not allowed to carry cameras, mobile phones, computers, tape recorders and other electronic devices into the parliament compound. Unlike in many democracies, their speech in parliament is not fully protected, and they are liable to be proescuted if their statements are determined to endanger national security or the unity of the country. Any protest staged within parliament is punishable by up to two years in prison.
There appeared to be little popular interest in parliament's opening. Last November's election left a widespread perception the junta cheated to ensure a victory by its proxies.
Many of the residents of Naypyitaw are civil servants or members of the military, or work in sectors that depend on their patronage, such as a waiter at a small food shop asked about the historic event.
"We know about parliament going to be convened, but I think this is not our concern. Our concern is earning our daily bread," said the man, in his mid-30s. Like many people fearful of drawing official attention, he asked not to be named or photographed.
Members of the small opposition bloc, however, took an upbeat approach.
"Now that parliament has convened, we have taken a step toward Myanmar's democratic change," said Thein Nyunt, an elected representative and former leader of the National Democratic Force, a party formed by breakaway members of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's political party.
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party boycotted last November's polls, claiming the process was unfair and undemocratic. The party was consequently dissolved under a new election law.
The NLD won a landslide victory in the last general election in 1990 but was not allowed to take power when the army barred parliament from convening.
Despite the heavy pro-military majority, which can push through or block any legislation and pass constitutional amendments on their own, there was muted hope that the new legislature will be a step, however small, toward a more democratic country.
"We are a minority in the parliament but we hope to make our voices heard and will ask for our rights," said Sai Hla Kyaw, a lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities Development Party, which won a combined 21 seats in both houses.
© 2011 The Associated Press.