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A new era begins for Myanmar | The World Weekly

Myanmar’s first freely elected Parliament after half a century of military rule opened on Monday, a symbolic but critical milestone in the country’s fragile transition to democracy, and a moment long awaited by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the nation’s democracy movement.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi entered the parliamentary chambers in Naypyidaw, the capital, through a side door. The chamber was swathed in orange — the color of her National League for Democracy Party, which overwhelmingly won a landmark election on Nov. 8. The military, as part of a complex political transition that has unfolded since 2010, retains 25 percent of the seats in both houses; its members wore green uniforms.

At least 110 of the party’s 390 members in the new Parliament are, like Ms.Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoners. They were formally installed on Monday following an unusually jubilant celebration on Friday, with karaoke singing and dancing, to mark the end of the military-led Parliament.

I think my presence here is a sign that everyone in this country has the right to participate in politics and that is what we were struggling for all those years.” - Pyone Cho, NLD member of Parliament and former 20-year political prisoner

 “The honeymoon period will be brief,” U Aung Zaw, an influential journalist who returned to Myanmar in 2012 after 24 years in exile, wrote on Monday on the website of his publication, The Irrawaddy. “All the hard work lies ahead.”

Still, he called the opening of Parliament “a momentous day for Burma,” which was the country’s official name until 1989 and is still used by many in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s lower house of Parliament during its inaugural session on February 1, 2016

The lower house of the new Parliament elected U Win Myint, a lawyer from Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party and a former political prisoner, as its new speaker. But in a sign of conciliation, lawmakers picked as deputy speaker U Ti Khun Myat, a member of the Kachin ethnic minority and a representative of the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is now the party in opposition.

Following a similar inclusive formula, the upper house of Myanmar's new Parliament elected Mahn Win Khaing Than of the NLD, an ethnic Karen, as its speaker during its inaugural session on Wednesday. Aye Tha Aung of the Arakan National Party was elected deputy speaker.

President Thein Sein, a former general who leads that party, gave a speech on Friday promoting the country’s “democratic transformation.” As the prime minister from 2007 to 2011, Mr. Thein Sein helped to establish a military-led civilian government and to pave the way for the end of the military junta’s monopoly on power, which it had held since a 1962 coup. The transition included Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010, a parliamentary by-election in 2012 that put her in Parliament, improved relations with the United States and the European Union, and the easing of some economic sanctions.

Mr. Thein Sein is to step down in March, and the new Parliament will choose his successor. But under the new Constitution, which was drawn up by the previous military-led government and accepted by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader is not eligible for the position because of the foreign citizenship of her husband — the British historian Michael Aris, whodied in 1999 — and her two sons, who hold British citizenship.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest under the former military government, said last year that a victory by her party would put her “above the president,” suggesting that the next president would be, if not largely ceremonial, a loyalist essentially governing on her behalf.

People take in the sunset at Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, on February 1, 2016

The National League for Democracy has been consumed with speculation about possible candidates for president. Among the names being mentioned are Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s longtime personal physician, U Tin Myo Win, who was one of the few people allowed to visit her during her years in detention; a lawmaker, Daw Su Su Lwin, and her husband, U Htin Kyaw, both democratic activists; and U Tin Oo, a former military commander in his late 80s who threw his support behind the 1988 democratic uprising that led to the party’s landslide election victory in 1990. (The junta refused to recognize the results.)

The NLD remains cagey about its choice of candidate for the post of president. There is some speculation that Ms. Suu Kyi will negotiate a deal with the military that would allow her to take up the post, but most analysts believe she will nominate a trusted aide. The political pundits' favourite, U Tin Oo, further confused the picture by declaring to reporters in Naypyidaw on Wednesday, "I never want to be president. I want to help her (Ms. Suu Kyi) as much as I can." Speaking shortly after, Ms. Suu Kyi urged reporters in Parliament, “Don’t be anxious”. The NLD must “think carefully” about its choice, she said. “You will know when the times comes.” 

The military, which still controls three important ministries under the new Constitution, remains a key force in the country.

In an email, Mr. Aung Zaw, the journalist, predicted that the National League for Democracy, despite its overwhelming victory last fall, would move carefully in forming a new government, which will take office in April.

“This is a new political beginning in Burma,” he wrote. “There is definitely renewed hope among people.”

Myanmar, a nation of 53 million people, faces enormous challenges, including widespread poverty, an underdeveloped economy and environmental degradation. There are still political prisoners, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism for not responding more aggressively to deadly violence by members of the country’s Buddhist majority against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group.

The ambassadors from Britain and the European Union were among the dignitaries at the opening of Parliament on Monday. On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the nomination of Scot Marciel, a career diplomat, to be the new American ambassador to Myanmar. This came after the Obama administration had assured lawmakers that it would not move hastily to lift sanctions until the human rights situation showed demonstrable improvement.

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