Myanmar opens junta-dominated Parliament

No foreign media representatives were allowed to witness the event.

Naypyidaw: Myanmar`s new junta-dominated Parliament opened on Monday as lawmakers assembled in secrecy for their first legislative session since the late 1980s following a widely panned election.

No foreign media representatives were allowed to witness the event or even take photographs of the new Parliament building where elected and designated lawmakers convened in the military regime`s purpose-built capital, Naypyidaw.

"Parliament started at 8:55 (am, 0225 GMT). All members attended," a Myanmar official said on condition of anonymity.

The timing -- almost certainly a product of the regime`s penchant for astrology -- was just one aspect of this new Parliament peculiar to a nation that has withered under the iron grip of military rule since 1962.

After a rare election in November, marred by the absence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and claims of cheating and intimidation, the junta was set to easily dominate Myanmar`s first parliamentary session in two decades.

The formation of the national Parliament in Naypyidaw and 14 regional assemblies takes the country towards the final stage of the junta`s so-called "roadmap" to a "disciplined democracy", conceived in 2003.

But a quarter of the seats were kept aside for the military even before the vote, and the Army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party claimed an overwhelming victory, winning 882 out of 1,154 seats.

While the regime may have been planning for years, the lawmakers themselves were in the dark about their roles in the Parliament, where proceedings may remain secret and rules ban recording devices, computers and mobile phones.

"No one really knows how the Parliaments will be organised. We will know when we get there," said Soe Win, a National Democratic Force (NDF) legislator.

"My feeling is that we are moving one step forward."

Suu Kyi, released from house arrest a few days after the polls, was less optimistic in a Financial Times interview published this weekend, downplaying the impact of political changes.

"I don`t think the elections mean there is going to be any kind of real change in the political process," she was quoted as saying. "I was released because my term was up. There is nothing strange about it."

The crucial question of who will be the country`s next President has yet to be discussed openly, although Thura Shwe Mann, the former Army number three, has recently been linked with the top spot.

Senior General Than Shwe, who has dominated the country since taking power in 1992, is now 77 but analysts say the strongman is reluctant to relinquish his hold completely.

Once appointed, the president will select a government, and can be confident of little resistance from a Parliament dominated by the military and its cronies.

Suu Kyi`s National League for Democracy (NLD) will not have a voice after it was disbanded for opting to boycott the election, while the two main opposition parties that decided to participate and won seats are political minnows.

The NDF, which split from the NLD in order to contest the vote, will take 16 seats in national and regional legislatures and the Democratic Party (Myanmar) has just three.

Parties from the country`s diverse ethnic minority regions have a little more clout than the democracy parties and want to speak up for their areas, which many feel have long been neglected.

Bureau Report