Dispatch from Naypyitaw: Myanmar’s North Korea-esque Independence Day

By The Irrawaddy 5 January 2023

With a grand military review and thousands of people forced to join a parade to greet the coup leader, the celebration of Myanmar’s 75th anniversary of independence saw Naypyitaw take on a distinct air of Pyongyang.

Naypyitaw’s usually deserted 20-lane concrete boulevard was filled with thousands of people marching, dancing, saluting, and parachuting under a scorching sun and 30°C temperatures.

The parade, which cost billions of kyats, was intended to deceive people at home and abroad into thinking Myanmar’s people support the military regime and had enthusiastically joined its Independence Day celebrations. But the truth was clear.

Tanks on show during the military parade in the capital on January 4. / AFP

Myanmar is becoming the next North Korea. What people witnessed on Wednesday (Jan. 4) in the administrative capital reminded them of the massive parades televised by state-owned media in Pyongyang. These parades serve two functions, first to show the outside world that North Korea is doing great despite international sanctions and second to shore up domestic support, especially in difficult times.

On Wednesday, in stark contrast to previous Independence Day celebrations, Min Aung Hlaing summoned family members of military personnel, government employees, and junta supporters to Naypyitaw for his grand military review. He was taking his cue from Pyongyang.

Government employees in the capital were forced to leave home in the early hours on Wednesday as the event started at 7 am. The regime lifted the curfew especially for the parade, which lasted for a full six hours.

Civil servants march to salute the regime chief during the 75th Myanmar Independence Day parade in Naypyitaw. / Myawady

Sleep-deprived crowds lined the boulevard, rubbing their eyes as the sun climbed higher in the sky. Their faces looked weary with no sign of pleasure.

Participants had suffered not just one sleepless night. They had been deprived of sleep since early December. “We rehearsed for one month. We had to leave our homes 3 am every day [for rehearsals]. I can’t wait to see the end of this event,” said one government employee.

Thousands of people representing various groups joined the military march-by, waving miniature flags and saluting the junta chief. There was no sign of emotion on their faces as they paced robotically through the ceremony.

Soldiers on horseback lead the convoy of Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing as he arrives at the parade ground to mark Independence Day. / AFP

Though Min Aung Hlaing has never declared it publicly, his ambition to become president is an open secret among people in Myanmar. On Jan. 4, Min Aung Hlaing dropped a broad hint of that dream as he took the salute.

The junta chief was wearing a golden Salwel, the regalia of Myanmar presidents. Beside him stood his wife Kyu Kyu Hla, her face blank and impassive.

Escorting the junta chief at the event was a unit of cavalry. “There was a commotion when a horse bolted before the Army chief arrived,” said one participant.

Also parading along the vast boulevard stretching to the presidential residence were floats representing junta ministries and region and state governments.

They showcased the so-called achievements of ministries since the coup, as well as landmarks in regions and states. The message they carried was clear – every military regime in Myanmar loves to blow its own trumpet even though its achievements only exist on paper.

Troupes of entertainers perform on the parade ground in front of the junta chief.

Accompanying each float was a performing troupe tasked with entertaining the junta chief on the concrete road under a baking sun. Most of the entertainers were barefoot.

“The reality is that the whole country is burning in the war. These floats are meaningless. All are lies. They are just wasting public funds,” said one government employee who had returned to work after initially joining the Civil Disobedience Movement.

While the event will no doubt have pleased the junta chief, it also presented departmental officials with an opportunity to line their own pockets.

“The floats were also used in [last year’s] Union Day celebrations. They were modified a bit for use in the Independence Day celebrations. But the [big] budget was granted as requested. So, this was a bonanza [for department officials],” he said.

The release of 750 white doves and a display of fireworks enhanced the stage-managed spectacle. Sources said the birds were purchased from Thailand and the fireworks from China

Seventy-five paratroopers also parachuted into the event in an unprecedented aerial display. The effect was marred however when several missed the target.

Attendees of the 75th Myanmar Independence Day Grand Military Review wear hats to protect themselves from the scorching Naypyitaw sun.

Wearing full presidential insignia, Min Aung Hlaing stood in an open-roof car to inspect troops, his face and mannerisms displaying a grim determination to maintain his grip on power.

The parade’s 12-gun salute early on Wednesday morning would have been heard by former dictator Than Shwe, and also by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero General Aung San who is being held in Naypyitaw Prison.

Min Aung Hlaing had marked the occasion by releasing over 7,000 prisoners in an amnesty, promoting himself as a magnanimous leader. Only a few of those released were political prisoners. Meanwhile, the majority of Myanmar people are well aware they have been held hostage by the military since the coup.

The regime also showed off aircraft, armored vehicles, and missiles in the Pyongyang-style military parade.

“It is definitely like North Korea: The regime has burned the money and wasted public funds,” said one attendee, who asked for anonymity.

Following Min Aung Hlaing’s coup in 2021, many Myanmar citizens forecast their country would become another failed state given the regime’s oppression, economic mismanagement and isolation, even jokingly calling it “North Myanmar.”

The regime’s celebration of Independence Day on Wednesday confirmed their worst fears.