Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi joined Myanmar’s generals at an annual military parade for the first time yesterday as the army put on a show of strength in the face of spreading sectarian bloodshed.
Her symbol-laden appearance at the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw underscored the country’s startling transformation since the former junta ceded power to a reformist government two years ago.
It comes as Burmese President Thein Sein grapples with deadly Buddhist-Muslim violence that has left 40 people dead in the past week and prompted the former general to declare a state of emergency and send out troops to restore order.
Activists have expressed disappointment that Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who was locked up for 15 years by the former junta, has remained largely silent about several episodes of sectarian bloodshed since last year.
The dissident-turned-lawmaker’s relationship with the army has come under scrutiny as she prepares for elections in 2015, and her presence at the parade will be seen as a sign of warming ties with the military.
Asked why Aung San Suu Kyi chose to watch the parade, a spokesman for her National League for Democracy party would only say: “She attended as she was invited.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, the country’s late independence hero Aung San, created the army and led the struggle against British colonial rule.
In January, Aung San Suu Kyi admitted she remained “fond” of the military, despite a litany of allegations that it has committed rights abuses in Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts, including rape and torture in northern Kachin State.
A controversial 2008 constitution crafted by the former junta — currently being reviewed by parliament — reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for armed forces personnel.
The country’s army chief yesterday reaffirmed the military’s involvement in politics.
Speaking to about 6,000 troops, senior general Min Aung Hlaing said the military performs a “role in the national politics in accordance with the people’s desire when the nation faces ethnic conflicts or political struggles.”
He surveyed the troops — whose numbers were fewer than in previous years — from a military jeep, while tanks rolled through the parade ground in the regime’s purpose-built capital and fighter jets soared overhead.
The communal clashes are a stark reminder of the challenge that Muslim-Buddhist tensions pose to Myanmar’s government as it tries to reform the country after decades of iron-fisted military rule.
Last year two outbreaks of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Rakhine left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.
The apparent trigger for the latest unrest was an argument in a gold shop a week ago in central Myanmar that turned into an escalating riot during which mosques were burned, houses razed and charred bodies left lying in the streets.
However, observers note that the violence appears to be well organized.
UN envoy Vijay Nambiar, who recently visited the riot-hit town of Meiktila, told reporters on Tuesday that Muslim homes had been targeted with “brutal efficiency.”
In the latest incident on Tuesday night, a rampaging mob set fire to a mosque and homes in the town of Nattalin about 150km north of the country’s main city Yangon, police said.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in several towns in central Myanmar as the authorities struggle to quell violence that has prompted the US to warn against traveling to parts of the country.