PARAMARIBO, SURINAME, JAN. 12 -- A civilian was elected president of Suriname by the National Assembly today, paving the way for a return to democracy after seven years of military rule.

The 51-member National Assembly elected former agriculture minister Ramsewak Shankar, 50, president for a five-year term. Henck Arron, a former prime minister, was elected vice president.

Shankar, who is to be inaugurated Jan. 25, replaces military leader Desi Bouterse as head of government. Bouterse seized power in the former Dutch colony in a 1980 coup. An East Indian by ancestry, he was nominated by a three-party coalition that won 40 of the assembly's seats in last November's general elections, the first poll in Suriname in 10 years.

More than 300 supporters of the coalition, known as the Front for Democracy and Development, burst into applause and cheers when Shankar's election was announced outside the assembly.

Western diplomats said that despite the support of the assembly, Shankar's government is expected to move cautiously to avoid antagonizing the military over human rights issues -- and also to end an 18-month-old guerrilla insurgency led by a former Army private, Ronny Brunswijk.

"There won't be a complete overhaul of the political structure overnight," one senior diplomat said. "The military will have a diminished role, but it will still be part of the picture, at least initially."

Diplomatic speculation centers on whether the front has secretly agreed to grant Bouterse and the military immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses. A burning memory here is the summary execution of 15 civilian opposition leaders following a right-wing coup attempt in 1982. Dutch and U.S. aid then was cut.

Suriname, a country of 400,000, became independent in 1975. The economy is reeling from the insurgency, with the vital aluminium industry shut down.