Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s opposition leader who had been under military detention for more than 15 years, has attended a military parade for the first time.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate had a front row seat during Wednesday’s annual celebration marking Myanmar’s uprising against Japanese occupation in 1945.
The attendance of Suu Kyi, who is now a member of the parliament, comes as the nation’s commander and chief said the military forces that reigned through five decades of dictatorship will continue to play a political role as Myanmar transforms itself into a democracy.
“While the country is moving toward modern democracy, our military plays a leading role in national politics,” said General Min Aung Hlaing.
“We will keep on marching to strengthen the democratic administrative path wished by the entire people.”
He told more than 6,300 troops gathered for Armed Forces Day that the military must strengthen its capabilities and regional alliances to build a “well-disciplined democratic nation”.
The occasion was also the first time in more than two decades that the nation put some of its hardware on public display. Helicopters buzzed over the hills. Fighter planes let off flares. Dozens of mud-green tanks, armoured personnel carriers and small artillery guns rolled by.
On Monday, the government warned that religious violence could threaten democratic reforms after anti-Muslim mobs rampaged through three more towns in the country’s predominantly Buddhist heartland.
In an announcement on state television, the government pledged to make “utmost efforts” to halt the violence and incitement of racial and religious unrest.
“We also urge the people to avoid religious extremes and violence which could jeopardise the country’s democratic reform and development,” it said.
President Thein Sein had declared an emergency in the affected areas of central Myanmar on Friday and deployed army troops to the worst-hit city, Meikhtila, where at least 32 people were killed.
According to the UN, more than 12,000 people were displaced.
Monday’s announcement said the displaced people would be resettled as soon as calm was restored.
Muslims in Meikhtila, who make up about 30 percent of the city’s 100,000 inhabitants, appeared to have borne the brunt of the devastation.
At least five mosques were set ablaze from Wednesday to Friday, and most homes and shops burned were Muslim-owned.
The authorities said they detained at least 35 people allegedly involved in arson and violence.
But residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, after a dispute on Wednesday in Meikhtila between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers brought anti-Muslim mobs into the streets.