Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Myanmar parliament begins new session dominated by Suu Kyi's party

The Monday session on Monday is landmark for the National League for Democracy party, long suppressed by the military

Hundreds of newly elected legislators, a majority of them from pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, have begun a parliament session that will install their government and elect a new president.

The session on Monday marks a historic turnaround for the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which for years was suppressed by the military. The party won 80 percent of the elected seats in general elections in November, qualifying it to form a government.

Myanmar started moving from a half-century of dictatorship toward democracy in 2011, when military rulers inexplicably agreed to hand over power to a nominally civilian government headed by President Thein Sein, a general turned reformist. He will stand down in late March or early April when an NLD president will take over.

Despite its victory, the NLD in practice will have to share power with the military, for which the constitution reserves 25 percent of the seats in parliament. Suu Kyi has met with senior military leaders to try to ensure a smooth change of government, and they have vowed not to interfere.

Thein Sein's Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is backed by the military, won a 2010 election in which the NLD refused to participate, protesting that it was held under unfair conditions. After several changes in the election law, the NLD contested several dozen by-elections in 2012, winning virtually all of them.

 "We don't know exactly when the presidential election will happen. We cannot tell you anything about who will be nominated as the presidential candidates as well," said Zayar Thaw, an NLD legislator.

The military has been in power since 1962, either directly or through a proxy government. It called an election in 1990, which Suu Kyi's party won only to see the results annulled by the military.

Suu Kyi was put under house arrest prior to the 1990 election and spent 15 of the next 22 years mostly confined to her lakeside villa in Yangon. She was under house arrest when she won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

This week, the party will focus on appointing parliamentary speakers, who were announced last week. It will also prepare for the start of state and regional assemblies on Feb.8, some in places dominated by large ethnic minorities such as Shan State in the east or Rakhine in the west.

Each of the parliament's two chambers will appoint its presidential candidate and the military officials who hold a quarter of seats will put forward their nominee. Combined chambers will then vote on the candidates. The winner will become president. The other two will serve as vice presidents.

Myanmar's 51.5 million people expect the NLD to quickly fix everything, including stopping the abuse of the Rohingya Muslims and bringing peace to a country marked by ethnic strife. 

The military-backed government signed a peace pact with more than dozen smaller ethnic armies before the elections but major groups have stayed away, and fighting continues in many states. Most are fighting for autonomy and rights over their resource-rich land.

"I hope this will be a good opportunity for us to speak out for the ethnic people and demand indigenous rights," said Lama Naw Aung, a lower house member from the Kachin State Democracy Party, representing the Kachin minority who are engaged in ongoing battles with the army in the east of the country.  

"They (people) hope that every problem will be solved automatically after the NLD becomes the government, FDI will come in," said Shwe Mann, the outgoing speaker of parliament who is close to Suu Kyi, referring to foreign investment.

But under the 2008 constitution, she is barred from the presidency because the constitution prohibits people with a foreign spouse or children from holding the office; her late husband was British, and their two sons hold British passports.

Suu Kyi has given no indication as to who will take over from the outgoing and the NLD has no clear number two.

Before the November vote, Suu Kyi said "I will be above the president. It's a very simple message. … "The constitution says nothing about being 'above the president."'

The NLD has not explained how she will do this.

"To accomplish the challenges, they need to choose the right people and put them in right positions," said Shwe Mann. "This is also my main concern, because it will decide the performance of her government."

Wire services

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