An elected parliament convened in Myanmar on Monday for the first time in half a century but inspired scant enthusiasm among a sceptical public convinced it is just a smokescreen for continued military rule.

More than 600 members filled two new Hluttaws, or legislative chambers, in the opening session. They are tasked with choosing Myanmar's first civilian president since a 1962 coup ushered in 49 unbroken years of military dictatorship.

The ruling junta has hailed the legislature as a new dawn of democracy but critics dismiss it as a charade that leaves the same authoritarian generals in control. The new government is just as likely to clamp down on dissent as the old one.

Lawmakers elected a chairmen and vice chairmen for each of the two chambers in the opening session, with three of the four positions going to retired soldiers, according to several parliamentarians, who asked to remain anonymous because speaking to the media was punishable by two years in prison.

The big surprise was junta number three Thura Shwe Mann, a career soldier honoured for bravery and tipped by many politicians and analysts as a possible presidential candidate, being made chairman, or speaker, of the lower house.

There was speculation among us that Thura Shwe Mann will become the president, but our party instructed us to elect him as the chairman of the lower house, said a member of the main political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is a proxy for the military government.

The army has a reserved quota of a quarter of the seats in both chambers, as well as in regional parliaments. That leaves parliament dominated by serving or retired soldiers loyal to junta supremo Than Shwe who many analysts think might take the post of president.

Police patrolled roads and legislators travelled in luxury cars to the assemblies in Naypyitaw, the sprawling capital built from scratch just four years ago, where the military rulers of the former Burma have isolated themselves some 320 km (200 miles) from the biggest city and former capital, Yangon.

But there was barely a ripple of interest among ordinary Burmese, most of whom see the changes as purely cosmetic.

We have no idea and no time to take the trouble to think about these useless things, said a 38-year-old worker in Naypyitaw when asked for his views on parliament.

Journalists were barred from attending the session and cellular phones were banned in the chambers.

Following a November 7 general election that was sharply criticised at home and abroad for irregularities, both the lower and upper houses will be dominated by the USDP.


The National Democratic Force, the biggest pro-democracy party that took part in the November election, won just 12 of the 664 seats.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy boycotted the election after winning the previous poll in 1990 by a landslide, a result the military ignored.

Despite being freed from house arrest after the election, Suu Kyi and her party, dissolved for boycotting the poll, have no influence over parliament, though she remains immensely popular.

While Western nations have harshly criticised the parliament and shown little sign of ending sanctions imposed in response to rights abuses, the elections have been lauded by China which, along with Thailand, India and Singapore, is a big investor.

Myanmar's neighbours are keen to tap its rich natural resources. Its proven gas reserves, for instance, doubled in the past decade to 570 billion cubic metres, equivalent to almost a fifth of Australia's, according to the BP Statistical Review.

China's official Xinhua news agency hailed the start of parliament as a new era, in which the military would still play a role with its own special characteristics.

Japan's Foreign Ministry said it would closely observe the direction of the parliament and called on the new government, when it takes office, to release political prisoners and engage more with the international community.

Most people interviewed by Reuters said they remained far more concerned with the struggles of day-to-day life in a country with woeful public services, frequent power cuts and chronic economic mismanagement.

At least 32 percent of Myanmar's estimated 50 million people live below the poverty line.

We don't care who becomes president as long as he can create better living conditions, said the worker, who would only speak candidly on the condition his name was not reported.

Things couldn't be worse right now and prices keep rising.

No one has publicly expressed interest in becoming head of state and analysts believe the president, two vice presidents and ministers have already been decided by the junta.

Many believe the 78-year-old Than Shwe is too wary to end his 18-year reign and will quietly retire from the military in coming days so he is eligible to take the all-powerful presidency himself.

Other analysts, however, believe the strongman may have reserved the top positions for his proteges and confidantes and plans to step aside and pull the strings from behind the scenes.