Myanmar opened its first parliament in more then 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 can exercise 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, were to open at the same time.
Roads leading to the parliament building were sealed off with roadblocks manned by armed police. Delegates wearing traditional attire — women in long-sleeved jackets — 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.
Delegates are not allowed to carry cameras, mobile phones, computers, tape recorders and other electronic devices into the parliament compound. They will be allowed freedom of expression — unless their words 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 with the military, or work in service sectors depending 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 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.
Dr. Khin Shwe, a business tycoon and elected upper house representative of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, was rosy about the future.
“The military government has achieved peace and stability in the country and now we will have to work for the development of the country. I believe there will be economic development under the new parliamentary system,” he said.
Lawmakers will first elect a chairman from among their members to supervise the parliament session, and will later elect a speaker and deputy speaker for each house.
However, the elected representatives are not sure when the country’s new president and vice presidents will be elected.