YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar's newly elected parliament named a key figure in the long-ruling military junta as president Friday, ensuring that the first civilian government in decades will be dominated by the army that has brutally suppressed dissent.
The appointment of Thein Sein, 65, was the latest step in Myanmar's self-declared transition to democracy following elections in November, but critics including recently freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have slammed the process as a sham aimed at cementing military rule.
"This is not surprising. It is what we had expected," Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi told reporters Friday. Suu Kyi's party won the previous elections in 1990 but was blocked at the time from taking power by the military. The party boycotted November's vote, calling it unfair.
Suu Kyi spent 15 of the last 21 years in prison or under house arrest and was released late last year after the vote was held.
The military's delegates in parliament and their civilian allies hold an 80 percent majority in the new legislature, which hand-picked the new president from a pool of three vice presidents named on Thursday. Thein Sein is the most prominent of the three and was seen as a shoe-in for the head of government.
An upper house lawmaker, Khin Shwe, contacted as he left the parliament said Thein Sein won 408 out of 659 votes.
The future role of junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who has wielded absolute power since 1992, remains unclear. But he is expected to remain a dominant force.
Under the 2008 constitution that came into force Monday with the opening of the Union Parliament, the president appoints the commander in chief, chief ministers of the regions and states and several Cabinet ministers.
Thein Sein is a former general who served as the junta's prime minister from October 2007 and now heads the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won a huge majority in November's general elections that much of the international community dismissed as rigged in favor of the junta.
He also has an image as a "clean" soldier, not engaged in corruption. Still, as prime minister and the fourth-ranking military leader in the junta, Thein Sein previously did not have much decision-making power.
Members of the new president's political party described him as a moderate with political skills that went unnoticed in his previous job.
"He's a very patient man and very decisive. I believe he can do more for the welfare of the grassroots people, and I see him as a person who can help develop Myanmar's economy," said Khin Shwe, a business tycoon and lawmaker from Thein Sein's USDP party.
In New York, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had "taken note" of the parliament's announcement of the election and hopes it will lead to change.
"It represents an important opportunity for Myanmar," said Hag, adding that Ban "hopes that it leads to the formation of a more inclusive civilian government that is broadly representative of all parties ... and more responsive to the aspirations of the people of Myanmar."
The U.N. chief said the United Nations was willing to work "with the new government and all other stakeholders in Myanmar towards greater democratization, development and stability," the deputy spokesman said.
The army has held power in Myanmar since 1962. There has been general curiosity in Myanmar about who will become the next president, but there is also a widespread perception that the military cheated in the elections and that the new government will not bring democratic change.