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Junta insider picked as prez

Myanmar named a key retired general as president on Friday, an official said, as the military hierarchy retained its stranglehold on power in the country's new political system.

world Updated: Feb 04, 2011 13:23 IST

Myanmar named a key retired general as president on Friday, an official said, as the military hierarchy retained its stranglehold on power in the country's new political system.

Thein Sein, who shed his army uniform to contest controversial elections last year, "was elected as the president with a majority vote," a Myanmar official said on condition of anonymity.

The former junta prime minister had been tipped for the post even before the electoral committee vote, supporting fears that the regime has engineered the political process to hide military power behind a civilian facade.

A key ally of junta strongman Than Shwe, the 65-year-old became a civilian to contest the November election as head of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which claimed an overwhelming majority in the poll.

One of the president's first jobs will be to appoint a government, and he can be confident of little resistance from a parliament dominated by the military and its cronies.

Sources said he was likely to retain his position as prime minister in addition to his new role.

Under complex parliamentary rules, the upper house, lower house and members of the military each nominated one vice president.

A select committee then chose the president from the three candidates, all of them members of the USDP as Myanmar's military, which has ruled the country since 1962, continued its domination.

The two vice presidents are Tin Aung Myint Oo, another retired top general and Than Shwe ally, and an ethnic Shan, Sai Mouk Kham.

Though Than Shwe, who has ruled Myanmar with an iron fist since 1992, has not taken the top political role, many analysts believe he will attempt to retain some sort of control behind the scenes.

Maung Zarni, of the London School of Economics, said the country's power structure was "classic dictatorship".

"The good guys do not get promoted," he said.

But Myanmar expert Aung Naing Oo said the very fact that Than Shwe was taking a back seat could present a small opportunity for change.

"Anything is possible if Than Shwe leaves. Maybe now Thein Sein is considered a very loyal 'yes man' but soon he will have to find his own way," he said.

The formation of a national assembly in Naypyidaw, convened for the first time on Monday, takes the country towards the final stage of the junta's so-called "roadmap" to a "disciplined democracy".

A quarter of the seats were kept aside for the military even before the vote, and the country's first poll in 20 years was marred by the absence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and claims of cheating and intimidation.

USDP lawmakers bagged 388 of the national parliament's 493 elected seats, leaving little room for dissenting voices.

The opposition National Democratic Force (NDF), which split from Suu Kyi's party in order to contest the election, has a total of 12 seats in the legislature's two chambers, and the Democratic Party (Myanmar) has none.

Thein Sein's rise to president comes after the United States said it was "disappointed" with Myanmar, adding it was "premature" to consider lifting sanctions.

Suu Kyi, released from seven consecutive years under house arrest a few days after the vote, also downplayed the impact of political changes in a Financial Times interview published last weekend.

"I don't think the elections mean there is going to be any kind of real change in the political process," she was quoted as saying.