Myanmar's junta leader Senior General Than Shwe vowed yesterday to work toward a democracy with "discipline" despite criticism from the West, as the military staged a show of force to mark Armed Forces Day.
The country's most powerful man spoke after inspecting more than 7,100 troops from the army, navy, air force and police in the sprawling and immaculately groomed Resistance Park in downtown Yangon, on the most important holiday for the military that has ruled since 1962.
In his annual speech, 72-year-old Than Shwe vowed to prepare for a democracy with "institutionalized discipline."
"The transition process constitutes a subtle and delicate but epoch-making revolution making a new order," Than Shwe said, referring to the junta's self-proclaimed "road map" to democracy.
"The nation needs reforms in all sectors -- political, economic, social and others -- to be well prepared for a democratic system with fully institutionalized discipline."
The junta's latest round of constitutional talks, the first step on its self-declared road map, resumed in February to a chorus of criticism from western countries and the UN. They condemned the proceedings for failing to include Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition party.
The US has identified Myanmar as an "outpost of tyranny" and imposed investment and trade sanctions on it.
The holiday marks the day in 1945 when General Aung San -- the leader of Burma's independence movement and Aung San Suu Kyi's father -- called on resistance fighters to expel Japanese occupying forces.
"Nowadays the preferred method employed by a major power to dominate and exploit a small country is political, economic or social subjugation rather than outright attack and occupation," Than Shwe said.
Myanmar's junta brutally crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 and two years later rejected results of national elections won by the NLD. Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.
Than Shwe also insisted that "our political reform has gained acceptance, not only among our neighbors and nations within the region, but also among all positive-thinking countries."
But Myanmar's delay in implementing long-promised democratic reforms has caused frustration among some fellow members of the ASEAN.
Malaysia will press for Myanmar to be refused the chairmanship of ASEAN next year unless it reforms, a Malaysian minister said last week.
The event unfolded amid strict security, with soldiers blocking access to the park. "Every evening in March they passed metal detectors around the park," one diplomat said.
Nearby shops were forced to close for two days before the event but residents appeared unfazed. "You know, our government has taught us patience," one park-side resident said.
Than Shwe's speech was attended by uniformed members of government known as the State Peace and Development Council, as well as a handful of diplomats and defense attaches from the embassies of China, India, Japan, Russia and the US.
European nations have no defense attaches here and their diplomats boycott military events.