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Asia

Myanmar's new parliament meets for first time

Myanmar’s new parliament has met for the first time after national elections were won largely by parties close to the military. Rights groups fear the military will maintain its firm control on the country

The newly constructed parliament buildings in Myanmar's new capital, Naypyitaw

The newly constructed parliament buildings in Myanmar's new capital, Naypyitaw

Myanmar’s national media welcomed the newly elected parliamentarians meeting under tight security for the first time in the capital Naypyitaw on Monday.

The more than 1,000 politicians wearing national dress started gathering at the newly built parliament early in the morning. The opening marks the final step in the military’s so-called ‘roadmap to democracy,’ in accordance with the 2008 constitution.

Military-dominated legislature

Myanmar's junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe might soon become president

Myanmar's junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe might soon become president

But the legislature is dominated by the military. Military-backed parties won almost 80 per cent of the seats in the November election, while a quarter of seats are already allocated under constitutional requirements to the armed forces.

It is thought the country’s present leader, Senior General Than Shwe, will be elected by the parliamentarians as the new president.

Soe Aung, spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, believes the parliament will be dominated by regime-backed candidates and "the parliamentarians will have no other chance but to become a rubber stamp parliament to endorse this executive council – called the national security and defense council. This will be the executive body which will run the country, headed by the president and also the commander in chief."

Rights groups worried

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released in November, 2010 but her party refused to take part in the elections

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released in November

The opening of the parliament came as a rights group, Burma Fund, released a report highlighting widespread political repression and human rights abuses since the election.

Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for a regional rights group, the Alternative ASEAN Network, also fears the outlook for human rights is bleak. "It’s very obvious to us that there will be more war crimes and crimes against humanity," she says, "because the constitution actually legitimizes impunity. There will be even more constraints on political activities because the political party registration law basically means that parties that have members who are prisoners will be dissolved, just as the National League for Democracy (NLD) was dissolved."

The NLD, led by opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, boycotted the poll and was later deregistered. Suu Kyi was released in November from house arrest but more than 2,000 political prisoners remain in jail.

Myanmar's first elections in 20 years took place in November 2010 amid a barrage of criticism that the balloting was rigged in favor of the ruling military

Myanmar's first elections in 20 years took place in November 2010

Steps in the right direction?

Myanmar-based analyst Khin Zaw Wyn says parliament’s opening does at least mark a step towards political change, albeit a small one, saying, "we are going to have a forum, a parliament which is multi-party for the first time in 48 years. In this parliament we are going to have serving military officers, former military officers and the democrats all sitting around together. And that is, I would say, quite an achievement." But he adds people will need to work hard for change as it will not happen on its own.

The opening of parliament and release of Suu Kyi from detention led to calls from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to lift trade and economic sanctions imposed largely by the West. But analysts say such a step is not likely to occur in the near future.

Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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