Burma has opened its first parliament in more than two decades, an event greeted with cautious optimism by opposition politicians despite the military’s tight management of the event.
The military and its allies hold more than 80% of the seats in both houses of parliament, ensuring that the army can exercise control over the wheels of power, as it has since a 1962 coup. A single-party parliament under the late dictator General Ne Win was abolished in 1988 after the army crushed a pro-democracy uprising.
The 440-seat lower house and 224-seat upper house opened in a new building in Naypyitaw, the remote city to which the capital was moved from Rangoon in 2005.
Roads leading to the parliament building were sealed off, with roadblocks manned by armed police.
Delegates wearing traditional dress were driven from state guest houses to the site, with each bus checked for bombs as they entered the compound. Reporters, diplomats and the public were barred from witnessing the proceedings.
Delegates are not allowed to carry cameras, mobile phones, computers, tape recorders and other electronic devices into the parliament compound.
They will be allowed freedom of expression – unless their words endanger national security or the unity of the country. Any protest staged within parliament is punishable by up to two years in prison.
Members of the small opposition bloc took an upbeat approach to the opening.
“Now that parliament has convened, we have taken a step toward Myanmar’s democratic change,” said Thein Nyunt, an elected representative and former leader of the National Democratic Force, a party formed by breakaway members of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party.
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party boycotted last November’s polls, claiming the process was unfair and undemocratic. The party was consequently dissolved under a new election law.