- Associated Press - Monday, January 31, 2011

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar | Myanmar opened its first parliament in more than two decades Monday, an event greeted with cautious optimism by opposition lawmakers despite the military’s tight management of the event.

The military and its allies hold more than 80 percent of the seats in both houses of parliament, ensuring that the army exercises control over the wheels of power, as it has since a 1962 coup deposed the last legitimately elected legislature.

A single-party parliament under the late dictator Gen. Ne Win was abolished in 1988 after the army crushed a pro-democracy uprising.

The 440-seat lower house and 224-seat upper house were opened simultaneously at 8:55 a.m. in a massive new building in Naypyitaw, the remote city to which the capital was moved from Yangon in 2005. The 14 regional parliaments, whose members also were elected in November, opened at the same time.

In the afternoon, the two houses convened together, and legislative officers were elected, according to Khin Shwe, a business tycoon and upper-house representative of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Thura Shwe Mann, who had been the junta’s third-ranking member and retired from the military to run for election with the USDP, was picked to be speaker of the lower house, and the junta’s Culture Minister Khin Aung Myint was named speaker of the upper house, Khin Shwe said.

The election of a vice president was scheduled for Tuesday, while the timing for picking a president was not yet clear.

With its allies controlling parliament and loyalists — many recently retired senior junta members — expected to fill top government posts, the military will be keeping a tight grip on the reins of power. The 2008 constitution, drafted under the junta’s guidance and with provisions ensuring the military’s dominance, also came into effect Monday.

Roads leading to the parliament building were sealed off, with roadblocks manned by armed police. Delegates wearing traditional attire and representatives of ethnic minorities in the garb of their respective groups were bused from state guesthouses to the site. Each bus was checked for bombs as they entered the compound.

Reporters, diplomats and the public at large were barred from witnessing the proceedings inside. Publicity for the event has been low-key, though Myanmar state television Monday night showed footage of the opening.

Unlike in many democracies, the speech of delegates in parliament is not fully protected, and they are liable to be prosecuted if their statements are determined to endanger national security.

Any protest staged within parliament is punishable by up to two years in prison.

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