BANGKOK (Reuters) - Myanmar inaugurated its first civilian government in nearly half a century on Wednesday, but with members of the old military regime still in prominent positions, the prospect of any big change remains slim.
The army junta made way for a new president to lead a government of 30 ministers, most of whom are retired or serving generals who were part of the old power clique that has ruled the former British colony with an iron fist.
Below are some questions and answers about what lies ahead for Myanmar, a resource-rich country nestled strategically between India, China and Thailand but held back by decades of trade sanctions and economic mismanagement.
With most of the same faces still holding the reins of power, reforms are unlikely in the near term, and especially while the junta’s authoritarian, 78-year-old paramount leader, Senior General Than Shwe, is still alive.
The release from seven years of house arrest of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in November raised hopes of positive change ahead, but the regime has given no indication it will mend its ways or shift its stance on anything.
Dozens of laws have been passed in virtual secrecy and a huge, largely opaque, privatisation process went ahead in advance of the formation of parliament, laying the foundations for a new system that looks very much like the old one — dominated by the generals and their business cronies.
Since the Nov. 7 election, the junta has continued to sideline and jail its opponents.
It has made no effort to reach out to the international community, hold a dialogue with Suu Kyi, seek reconciliation with armed ethnic groups, free an estimated 2,100 political prisoners or bring pro-democracy forces into the political fold.
Myanmar’s paramount leader has relinquished his political and military positions and is likely to retire, but he will continue to wield sizable influence and few will dare to challenge him. Than Shwe is believed to have monopolised all power since he took over in 1992 and it is unlikely his successors will dream of operating independently.
Than Shwe has placed loyalists in all the key positions in the executive, judiciary, legislature and armed forces. The power Than Shwe once held will now be shared between the president, the cabinet, parliament and the military, an effective slicing-up of responsibilities probably designed to prevent the emergence of another strongman, analysts say.
Than Shwe purged his predecessors and is known to be deeply unpopular, not just among the public but within the army itself. Analysts say he may have devised the new system to allow himself a gradual exit from the political scene.
Although it is widely accepted that Western sanctions have failed to hurt the regime, seving only to push the country closer to China and its Asian allies, there is no sign the embargoes will be lifted any time soon and the international community is largely sceptical about the new administration.
Western countries have indicated they will need to see concrete changes before lifting the embargoes. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), recently recommended they remain in place although it has urged dialogue on the issue.
This stance has angered the generals, but experts say the NLD is probably using sanctions as a bargaining chip, as it tries to push ahead with its pro-democracy agenda at a time when it has no official role, having been banned by the authorities for refusing to take part in the general election.
The dissolution of the junta will be seen as a positive step by the international community, which may try to test the waters by seeking engagement with the new leadership. It remains to be seen if the former generals now in charge of the country will respond.
Most experts say the new government will be much like the old one, especially while Than Shwe is alive, although some see this as a window of opportunity for change, albeit small.
One bright spot is the formation of 14 regional assemblies that are seen as a chance for Myanmar’s many ethnic groups to have a say in local politics in a way that would not threaten the military’s grip on central power.
Although the military retains a powerful role, its move away from direct control could provide room for outsiders and raise the chances of much-needed reforms.
Several of the new ministers are civilians with non-military backgrounds. An academic heads the education ministry and the rector of a medical institute is in charge of the health portfolio, suggesting there is scope for the involvement of technocrats in government.
Many experts say the onus for a shift in approach is as much on the international community as on the new government. They warn that if the West maintains its hardline stance towards Myanmar, it could squander a chance to bring about change for its impoverished people. That’s why the lifting of sanctions, or at least a review, them, is seen as vital.
Editing by Alan Raybould