NAYPYIDAW — In a North Korean-style display of military might on Wednesday, Burma paraded its heavy weaponry on the annual Armed Forces Day, which was attended for the first time by Aung San Suu Kyi.
National League for Democracy chairwoman Suu Kyi, the daughter of the wartime hero of Burma’s army, sat in the front row.
Artillery, tanks and jets were accompanied by more than 6,000 troops at the Three Kings Monument in the garrison capital of Naypyidaw.
Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Burma’s armed forces, said in a speech that the country’s military needs to be strong to protect the 2008 Constitution, which preserves the former ruling generals’ power in the country.
In the Constitution “it is clearly stated that our Tatmadaw [military]’s main job is to … protect the Constitution,” he said.
The army chief struck a different tone than Shwe Mann—a former top general, currently the lower house speaker—who yesterday said he wanted to amend the clause in the Constitution which reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military, effectively giving them a veto on crucial votes.
“The armed forces must play a leading role in national politics as the nation transitions into a modern democratic state,” Min Aung Hlaing said.
Armed Forces Day commemorates the day Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father took up arms against the Japanese fascists on March 27, 1945.
Although met with pomp and ceremony within the confines of government life, ordinary people care little for a day of celebration for an institution blamed for some of the worst human rights abuses in Southeast Asia’s modern history.
The atmosphere in the capital and in Rangoon was subdued, no national flags were hoisted in the streets and no ordinary Burmese joined in the day’s events.
Aung San Suu Kyi was accompanied to the event by the leaders of ethnic minority political parties.
Min Aung Hlaing recounted Burma’s history with colonialism—the three British conquests and the arrival of the Japanese Empire—as a reason for Burma to maintain a strong army against outside aggressors.
The general also called on the army to show respect to ethnic groups whose various armed groups have waged decades-old armed struggles against the government.
He said the 1988 uprising, in which Burmese government troops killed at least 3,000 unarmed protestors, was “anarchy,” and without the army there would have been chaos.
It is well documented that military units operating in ethnic areas have routinely used torture, arbitrary execution and detention, rape and forced relocation as weapons of war—all illegal under international law. Some human rights groups have said the military’s actions in ethnic areas amount to a form of genocide.
But despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Min Aung Hlaing said the army has always abided by international human rights legislation, especially the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which are the laws governing humanitarian issues in war.
“In the history of our army, genocide has never been carried out because of hatred of a national race,” he said. “We have taken appropriate measures against those who take up arms against the government.”