NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's commander in chief said Wednesday that the military forces that reigned through five decades of dictatorship will continue to play a political role as the country transforms itself into a democracy.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing told more than 6,300 troops gathered for Myanmar's Armed Forces Day that the military must strengthen its capabilities and regional alliances to build a "well-disciplined democratic nation."
"While the country is moving toward modern democracy, our military plays a leading role in national politics," he said. "We will keep on marching to strengthen the democratic administrative path wished by the entire people."
The Armed Forces Day celebration, which commemorates Myanmar's uprising against Japanese occupation forces in 1945, was a show of vast and precise power. For the first time in more than two decades, Myanmar put some of its hardware on public display. Helicopters buzzed over the hills. Fighter planes let off flares. Dozens of mud-green tanks, armored personnel carriers and small artillery guns rolled by. A commander barked out orders and the clicking of row after row of boot-polished heels came back like thunder.
Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was in attendance for the first time, seated in the front row. The daughter of Aung San, Myanmar's most famous general and founding father, Suu Kyi has reached out to the military — which was known for its brutality during its half-century of absolute rule — over the objections of some in her own party.
The military stepped aside for an elected government in 2011. President Thein Sein is a former general himself but has led a flurry of democratic changes. Still, the military remains a potent political force and is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in parliament, which is enough to block constitutional amendments.
Min Aung Hlaing emphasized the military's importance for maintaining national unity and sovereignty and said troops will abide by international humanitarian law.
"We must build our military to be strong and powerful," he said. He called for modern weaponry and training and closer alliances with neighboring countries, particularly within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.