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Myanmar to open junta-dominated parliament


Elected and designated lawmakers were gathering in Myanmar's capital on Monday amid tight security and secrecy for the grand opening of the country's fledgling parliament.

After a rare election in November, marred by the absence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and claims of cheating and intimidation, the junta were set to enjoy a crushing majority in the new assembly, opening at exactly 8:55 am (0225 GMT).

The timing -- almost certainly a product of the regime's penchant for astrology -- is just one aspect of this new parliament peculiar to a nation that has withered under the iron grip of military rule since 1962.

The formation of a national parliament in Naypyidaw and 14 regional assemblies takes the country towards the final stage of the junta's so-called "roadmap" to a "disciplined democracy", conceived in 2003.

But a quarter of the seats were kept aside for the military even before the vote, and the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claimed an overwhelming victory, winning 882 out of 1,154 seats.

While the regime may have been planning for years, the lawmakers themselves were in the dark about their roles in the parliament, where proceedings may remain secret and rules ban recording devices, computers and mobile phones.

"No one really knows how the parliaments will be organised. We will know when we get there," said Soe Win, a National Democratic Force (NDF) legislator.

The crucial question of who the country's next president will be has yet even to be discussed openly, although Thura Shwe Mann, the former army number three, has recently been linked with the top spot.

At 77, Senior General Than Shwe, who has dominated the country since taking power in 1992, is at prime age for retirement, but analysts say the strongman is reluctant to relinquish his hold completely.

A select committee will at some point choose the president and his two vice-presidents from three candidates elected by the upper house, the lower house and members of the military respectively.

The president will then be the one to appoint a government, and can be confident of little resistance from a parliament dominated by the military and its cronies.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) will not have a voice after it was disbanded for opting to boycott the election, while the two main opposition parties that decided to participate and won seats will be political minnows.

The National Democratic Force, which split from the NLD in order to contest the vote, will take 16 seats in national and regional legislatures and the Democratic Party (Myanmar) has just three.

Parties from the country's diverse ethnic minority regions have a little more clout than the democracy parties and want to speak up for their areas, which many feel have long been neglected.