Burma's Parliament to Open, but Army in Control

Burma is preparing to open its first session of parliament in more than two decades, a major step in the ruling military's self-styled transition to democracy but one being carried out with little fanfare or public enthusiasm.

There is muted hope that Monday's convening of the new legislature will be a step, however small, in the right direction for the country, also known as Myanmar, that has seen the army rule with impunity since a 1962 coup ended the last legitimate parliamentary democracy. Still, with a quarter of the seats in the upper and lower houses reserved for the military and the remainder dominated by political parties loyal to the outgoing junta, there is little chance for an actual return of power to the people.

The junta for years has been touting the convening of parliament as the penultimate step in its so-called roadmap to democracy, leaving only the task of having it elect a president. Current junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, however, is expected to remain the country's guiding force, no matter what position he holds in the new regime.

While the general public is curious who may become head of state — even though it is certain to be a prominent member of the junta — there appears to be little popular interest in parliament's opening. Last November's election and the widespread perception the junta cheated to ensure a victory by its proxies has done little to quell criticism that the road map is nothing more than army rule by a different name.

Even the military has done little to highlight the simultaneous opening of the 440-seat lower house and 224-seat upper house in a massive new building in Naypyitaw, the remote city to which the capital was moved from Yangon in 2005.

There are few if any of the propaganda billboards that normally trumpet momentous state occasions. Neither the press nor the foreign diplomatic community has been invited to attend, which is tantamount to saying "stay away."

While the credibility of the road map was long ago dismissed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party — which boycotted the polls and consequently was dissolved under a new election law — some antimilitary parties prefer to look at the bright side.

They expressed optimism that despite being a minority, they will be able to make proposals and work for democratic changes within a legal framework that was previously absent.

"Our experience of 20 years trying to make our voices heard from the streets hasn't yielded any result. But this time I am optimistic that we can achieve something as we are going to talk in the parliament," said Thein Nyunt, an elected representative and former leader of the National Democratic Force, a party formed by breakaway members of Suu Kyi's NLD.

Others, however, note that the combination of military and pro-military lawmakers can push through or block any legislation and constitutional amendments on their own. The pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party combined with military appointees will account for 85 percent of seats in the lower house and 83 percent in the upper house.

"Generally speaking, having a parliament is better than not having a parliament. However, this parliament is a military-dominated parliament that will lack independence," said 90-year old Thakin Chan Tun, a former ambassador and veteran politician.

He said there is little doubt that Than Shwe will be the one pulling parliamentary strings.

"The parliament will only perpetuate military rule. ... Do not expect democratic changes to come," he said.

Parliamentary democracy is an unfamiliar concept in Burma. A single-party parliament under late dictator Ne Win last met in 1988, when a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations tossed out the old constitution and installed the current junta.

Suu Kyi's party won elections in 1990, but the military refused to hand over power and did not allow parliament to convene. They locked Suu Kyi away for most of the past 21 years, freeing her a week after November's elections.

With the legislative process being new to most, incoming lawmakers have been given a booklet on legislative basics, including instructions on how to use green, yellow and red buttons to vote. There is a dress code as well. All lawmakers are to wear traditional attire — women must wear long-sleeved jackets — with representatives of ethnic minorities donning the garb of their respective groups.

Any real debate is unlikely, though. Words that endanger national security or the unity of the country are banned and any protest staged within parliament is punishable by up to two years in prison.