NAYPYITAW, Myanmar – Myanmar's junta was officially disbanded Wednesday after handing over power to a new so-called civilian government, the latest phase of a transition to democracy that has been widely criticized as a sham.
The closed-door inauguration of the new government was announced only after it took place, in keeping with the secretive style of Myanmar's military regimes of the past 50 years. Despite the handover, key figures in the former junta including leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe are expected to retain substantial hold over power.
State television and radio reported that the new government headed by President Thein Sein was sworn in by parliament in the remote capital of Naypyitaw. Thein Sein was the junta's prime minister and a top member of the previous military government.
Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military since 1962 and is also known as Burma, held its first elections in 20 years in November, though there has been little indication since of real democratic changes.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the election process was "fundamentally flawed" and key figures in the military regime continued to dominate the government and decision-making.
"The fact that they have taken off uniforms and donned civilian clothes is immaterial," he told a news conference in Washington.
The Myanmar news reports said the new government's arrival marked the end of the junta's longtime ruling party, the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, which has been in power since 1988.
"The SPDC is officially dissolved," state media reported, saying that the dissolution was ordered by Than Shwe, who wielded absolute power since 1992.
Almost immediately after the announcement, government offices underwent a makeover.
Signs outside the junta's Peace and Development Council offices nationwide came down and were replaced with new ones saying: "General Administration Office." The new and old signs were similar shades of dark green, the same color used by Thein Sein's ruling party, which is seen as a proxy for the junta.
State media did not mention what becomes of Than Shwe. The dissolution of his party would render him effectively retired, but he is expected to remain a dominant force.
The 78-year-old now no longer holds his two official posts — as SPDC chairman and armed forces commander.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, a senior defense official, was named the new commander of Myanmar's armed forces, said lawmaker Phone Myint Aung, who attended the inauguration.
The new government's 30-member Cabinet is dominated by former military officers who retired in order to run in last November's elections. About a dozen of the ministers were members of the junta's Cabinet. Only four of the appointees are strictly civilian.
Critics say last year's elections were orchestrated by the junta to perpetuate military rule. With one quarter of the seats in parliament filled by military appointees, and a large majority of the remaining seats won by a military-backed party, the army retains power.
The party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which won the last elections in 1990 but was blocked from taking power by the military, boycotted November's vote, calling it unfair. Much of the international community also dismissed the elections as rigged in favor of the junta.
Suu Kyi who still heads the opposition group, the National League for Democracy, said she hoped relations with the new government would be better.
"We always want good relations with the government. I hope that the relationship improves," Suu Kyi said over the weekend. "We will work for good relations."
Toner reiterated U.S. calls for the government to recognize the legitimacy of Suu Kyi's party, and enter into an inclusive dialogue with all democratic and ethnic opposition groups as a first step toward reconciliation.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.