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Politics

New parliament electing ethnic minorities to key posts

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Aung San Suu Kyi at the first session of Myanmar's new parliament on Feb. 1   © Reuters

NAYPYITAW -- The new parliament in Myanmar is spending some of its first hours appointing ethnic minorities to important posts, reflecting the ruling National League for Democracy's desire to ensure racial harmony in this ethnically diverse nation.

     General elections in November gave the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi a majority of seats in both the lower and upper houses. As the lower house held its first session with newly elected members on Monday, choosing a speaker and deputy speaker were one of the first orders of business for the freshman politicians.

     The job of speaker of the house went to Win Myint, a lawyer and long-term NLD member who has been with the party since it was established in 1988. "All of us must work together and deepen our mutual understanding toward the goal of building a democratic federal state," the new house speaker said in his speech on Monday.

     Ti Khun Myat, a member of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, was selected as deputy speaker. His party, which has close ties with the military, led the previous parliament, but suffered massive losses in both houses in the November elections. In the new parliament, the USDP controls only about 10% of the seats. The fact that Ti Khun Myat was given the post despite his party's small presence reflects NLD leader Suu Kyi's vision of creating a united front toward national reconciliation. Ti Khun Myat's appointment is also significant because he is a member of the Kachin minority group.

     In the upper house, which will hold the first meeting with newly elected members on Wednesday, NLD member Mahn Win Khaing Than from the Karen tribe is expected to be named speaker. Aye Thar Aung of the Arakan National Party, which represents the Rakhine ethnic minority, will get the nod as deputy.

     Equality among tribes was an NLD election promise, helping the party win seats in areas controlled by ethnic minorities. Three of the four top parliamentary posts going to minority members reflects the ruling party's desire to ensure the support of those peoples going forward. The Burmese people account for 60-70% of Myanmar's population, but the remainder is split among more than 130 ethnic groups. Since its independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the Southeast Asian country has seen fighting erupt between minority groups. This is why ensuring ethnic harmony is one of the biggest challenges for the NLD-led government, which is due to take power in late March.

     According to a high-ranking party official, more than half of the new government's cabinet members will be appointed from outside the NLD, since many of the newly elected NLD members in parliament are first-time politicians. "We will seek talent from a big pool, including opposition parties, the private sector and ethnic minorities," the party official said.

     The parliament is expected to select the new president in mid-February or later. Under the current constitution, people who have a foreign citizen among their relatives are disqualified from becoming president, a measure put in place by a previous government to prevent Suu Kyi, whose sons have British citizenship, from holding the position. For this reason, the next president will likely be selected from senior NLD members, such as Tin Oo, the party's supreme adviser. The new president is expected to keep the seat warm until the constitution is revised to pave the way for Suu Kyi to lead the nation.

     The Nobel Peace Prize laureate attended the first sitting of the lower house on Monday, but kept a low profile and avoided the press.

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