Following a decades-long struggle for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has taken a majority of seats in Myanmar's parliament. Verena Hölzl reports from Naypyitaw about the historic move.
U Bo Bo is getting settled in his new home. Newspapers, books and his parliament ID card are close at hand, and a few towels are already dangling from a wooden clothes rack. The lawmaker moved into his new place just a few hours ago. It is a place which emanates a rather Spartan charm: wooden beds, a concrete floor, a noisy fan and a water-filled container for showering.
In jail, he only had a bamboo mat, the tall Burmese man said jokingly, while posting photos of his latest trip to the capital Naypyitaw on Facebook. U Bo Bo was once a political prisoner of the military regime. But from February 1 he will be representing the people of Myanmar in a new parliament dominated by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).
This is the first time in 50 years that the Southeast Asian nation will be led by democratically elected politicians. More than two-thirds of voters elected the NLD in last fall's parliamentary polls, thus removing the military-backed government of President Thein Sein from power.
'No grudge against junta'
Given Naypyitaw's large size, the NLD's residential hostel seems a bit crowded, as almost 400 lawmakers have been instructed by the party leadership to reside here. Wearing their salmon-colored shirts, they get on shuttle buses every morning to travel to and from parliament. The highways leading to Myanmar's capital - built by the junta in 2005 - are usually deserted. The city is mostly made up of ministries and detached hotel facilities.
50-year-old U Bo Bo spent almost half of his life in jail. The military government jailed him for a total of 20 years and five days for supporting a pro-democracy student movement in 1988. "Compared to the civil rights movement in the United States, this is not really a long time," he said, adding that he holds no grudge against the generals who locked him up for 20 years. "We have to keep up the fight for democracy, and the only way this can happen is by putting the past behind us."
Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself was kept under house arrest for two decades, has repeatedly stated she wants to reconcile with the old regime, a stance that improves her chances of negotiating with the country's powerful military whose foundations were not shaken by the NLD's electoral victory.
Military retains key ministries
In fact, three key ministries (Home Affairs, Defense and Border Affairs) are still under the control of the generals. Moreover, a quarter of all lawmakers in parliament are members of the armed forces, a position which effectively cements their grip on power, as it enables them to veto any attempts to amend the constitution.
The military already backtracked once, when it annulled a landslide electoral win by the NLD in 1990 - an event which is vividly remembered in the Southeast Asian country. But the trauma has also sown mistrust, with lawmakers being ordered not to talk to the media or disclose any information about the formation of the new government.
Only one thing is clear: Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president. The junta-drafted constitution bars anyone with a foreign spouse or children from taking the top political office - the late husband of the Nobel laureate was British, as are her two sons.
This is why amending the constitution will be a top priority for U Bo Bo and his NLD colleagues in the new parliament. What he lacks in political experience he makes up for in idealism. "It's not hard to be a politician," he says, adding that the party will decide on which committee he will be sitting in.
But it's precisely this dependency on the authorities that upsets people like Daw Thet Thet Khine, who only took up politics during the recent election. Ever since the 48-year-old businesswoman won a parliament seat for the NLD, she has had no time to work on her PhD in business administration, or take care of the jewelry empire she and her husband created.
"The NLD lacks people with the necessary expertise," she criticized. Daw Thet Thet Khine studied business administration abroad, gained knowledge in public administration and worked for years as joint secretary general of Myanmar's chamber of commerce. And although foreign embassies have invited her to talk about the country's future, she finds no sympathetic ear within the NLD.
Daw Thet Thet Khine is not the only one who believes party veterans are trying to protect Aung San Suu Kyi from anything and anyone that could get in her way. For instance, frustrated NLD insiders claim the party leadership assigns key positions to those members whom they trust from the time when the party was an underground political movement. According to Daw Thet Thet Khine, this means there isn't much room to maneuver for capable newcomers - at least not for now.