Thu 31 Mar 2011
Filed under: Inside Burma
Bangkok — A nominally civilian government took office in Myanmar on Wednesday but the change was mostly one of political structure as the military, which has ruled for a half-century, maintained its grip on power.
Thein Sein, 65, a retired military officer who leads the military-backed majority party in a newly elected Parliament, was sworn in as president. He formally replaced the military junta that has been headed by Senior Gen. Than Shwe for the past two decades.
But under the new structure the general will remain the power behind the scenes and have the right to override civilian rule by decree.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962 and ruled by the current junta since 1988, when the army crushed a pro-democracy uprising, killing an estimated 3,000 people. A military-backed party was routed in an election in 1990 but the army refused to give up power.
The leader of the opposition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was freed last November after spending nearly 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest. Her party, the National League for Democracy, chose not to take part in the parliamentary election held just before her release and is not represented in the new Parliament.
The transition culminates a ”roadmap to democracy” that included a constitutional referendum in 2008 and the election last year, both widely seen as fraudulent.
Many Western analysts dismiss the change as a Potemkin facade but some have voiced hopes that it might open the door a crack to incremental change.
”Anyone trying to identify potential reformers in this system will go stir-crazy from speculation,” David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with Human Rights Watch, said. ”Most of the new government have praetorian repression in their DNA, and the best we can hope for is that there are some civilians in ministries that matter, like health and education, that can attempt to turn back the slide into social atrophy that decades of military mismanagement have wrought.”
Under the new Constitution, 25 percent of the seats in Parliament are reserved for serving military officers. Together, the military and the military-backed party control about 84 percent of the seats, said Aung Din, executive director of the United States Campaign for Burma, a lobbying group.
General Than Shwe has appointed all government ministers and senior judges, controlled the budget, and initiated the major laws that have been announced, said Win Min, a professor at Payap University in Thailand who is on leave in the United States. He said the moment to look for possible change might not be the current restructuring of government but the eventual decline of the senior general, who is 77.