A civilian government was officially established in Burma Wednesday, ending decades of military rule, but opposition members and ordinary citizens say they expect few reforms from an establishment dominated by former generals.
The new government headed by President Thein Sein was sworn in behind closed doors by parliament in the remote capital of Naypyidaw more than four months after elections that were criticized as a sham.
Thein Sein was the prime minister under the military junta led by General Than Shwe, while Burma’s parliament is dominated almost entirely by retired and serving soldiers.
Than Shwe, 78, also named General Min Aung Hlaing as his successor as commander-in-chief Wednesday, signaling his imminent retirement. But analysts expect him to wield power behind the scenes.
At the inauguration of the new government, President Thein Sein demanded that the Western powers treat Burma as a true democracy and lift longstanding economic sanctions that have left the country starved of foreign investments and trade.
"Some countries, which say they would like to see socioeconomic progress among [Burma’s] people and the emergence of democracy in [Burma], should recognize positive changes and developments in the country," Thein Sein said.
"I hereby invite them to cooperate with our new government ... It is high time they stopped applying pressure, supporting opposition groups and economic bullying," he said.
But while the international community is likely to work with the new government, it is unlikely Western sanctions will be lifted without concrete reforms from the Burmese leadership, including the release of some 2,100 political prisoners.
That message was clearly underlined Wednesday by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who called for proof that the civilian government is a "genuine" end to military rule.
"The [Burmese] authorities now have an opportunity and, indeed, an obligation to their people, to demonstrate that this change is one of substance and that it is the start of a genuine move away from almost fifty years of direct military rule," Ban was quoted as saying by his spokesman Martin Nesirky.
Ban also called for "inclusive dialogue" on broad political and economic reforms and said the government must answer "the longstanding aspirations of the [Burmese] people for national reconciliation, democratization and respect for human rights ...."
‘Old policies, new suits’
Ohn Kyaing, spokesperson for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said that based on last year’s election results, “we can't say this is the change people have wished for.”
“[The election] was based on the 2008 constitution, and was not inclusive [of the people] despite the fact the whole world asked for inclusiveness,” he said.
Under the 2008 constitution, which was pushed through by the junta, one quarter of the 440 parliament seats were reserved for military officials. The constitution also allows the commander-in-chief of the armed forces the authority to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs, and border affairs.
A woman from Burma’s Pegu division said she doesn’t believe the new government will be any different than the last.
“The junta governed with a uniform before, and now with a civilian’s suit,” she said.
“They endorsed the 2008 constitution by themselves without the people’s support. We have no hope for anything different, and we have little interest, as we all know that they are playing with their own cards.”
Htun Myint Aung, a student leader from Burma’s violently quelled 1988 pro-democracy movement, said the people do not view the new civilian administration as legitimate "because they are the same people.”
“The 2008 constitution was introduced simply to endorse military rule. [It’s the same] old policies in new civilian suits, and that doesn't make them a new government,” Htun Myint Aung, who is currently in hiding within Burma, told RFA.
“However we would like to see them take on new policies with new inspiration and meaning. We want them to show that they care for the good of the people, by lifting all restrictions, releasing all political prisoners, and striving for national reconciliation.”
One of the challenges the new government will face will include maintaining tenuous cease-fire agreements with ethnic independence movements in Burma’s border areas. Political parties from these areas were given little to no representation in parliament after the elections.
Spokesperson for the Southern Shan State Army Sai Loi Hsen said that on March 25, just days ahead of the official switch to a civilian government, the junta said it would not hold any talks with ethnic armed groups.
"We don't see any policy by the new government to talk with the opposition … So we don't believe the new government is willing to make peace in the country," he said.
Another test for the administration will involve its response to last week’s 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Burma’s Shan State near the Thai border.
The earthquake left at least 75 people dead and 100 injured, according to Burmese officials. But the death toll may have climbed to as high as 300, according to local residents interviewed by The Irrawaddy, a media organization run by Burmese in exile.
While humanitarian organizations have been quick to praise Burmese authorities for their quick response to the disaster and transparency, The Irrawaddy quoted residents as saying that many of the dead were soldiers and that the army had tightened restrictions on the flow of information out of the area.
Other residents said that soldiers who had been dispatched to assist in relief efforts were looting homes and misappropriating aid donations instead of searching for survivors.
Any assistance from the Burmese government would stand in contrast to its response in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.
The cyclone marked the country’s worst natural disaster to date, killing 140,000 and leaving tens of thousands without homes in the Irrawaddy Delta, but the junta blocked efforts by aid organizations to the area for weeks.
Holding out hope
Despite these challenges, some in Burma are optimistic that the switch to a civilian government will result in some degree of progress in the country’s political system, no matter how small.
Thu Wai, a member of the Democratic Party in Burma said that the disbanding of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) would inevitably reduce the military’s role in running the country.
"The general [Than Shwe] will still be in control to some extent; however, it won't be as much as before,” he said.
Khin Wain Kyi, an MP from the National Democratic Force who attended the Wednesday inauguration ceremony, said that “overall, things look better than we thought.”
“I think change and development in the future for Burma is dependent on the qualifications of those who are going to take on the duty [of governing],” she said.
"If all [parties] participate and work together without malice according to the goals of a multiparty system, with the wealth of natural resources in Burma, an understanding of the political aims of all parties involved, and with goodwill for the public, we are only limited by the abilities of those in charge."
Reported by Nayrein Kyaw and Ingjin Naing for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.