NAYPYITAW, Myanmar — The military that ruled Myanmar for five decades paraded its might Wednesday in front of the opposition leader it once repressed, as its commander in chief said it will remain involved in politics to help the country transform itself into a democracy.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, attending the annual Armed Forces Day celebration for the first time, sat in the front row, highlighting the support she has previously expressed for the military. Though the military handed over political leadership to an elected government in 2011, it continues to wield control over how far democracy – and Suu Kyi herself – could advance.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing told more than 6,300 troops gathered at the parade ground in Myanmar's isolated capital, Naypyitaw, 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."
One of the most inscrutable questions today is how Myanmar's powerful military views the country's rapid political and economic change and what role they envision for themselves in the future, after overseeing decades of repression that included years of house arrest for Suu Kyi.
Min Aung Hlaing's answer Wednesday was that the military will continue to play a central role, both in politics and as peacekeepers in a nation that has seen a surge of ethnic and religious violence in the two years since President Thein Sein's administration began opening up the Southeast Asian country.
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, it 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.
The military retains considerable influence. Thein Sein is a former general himself, and many top ministers and powerful parliamentarians are former military officers. The military's economic power is murkier, but it controls two sprawling conglomerates with interests that include mining, hotels and beer and rice exporting.
The constitution reserves a quarter of the seats in Parliament for the military, giving them effective veto power over major constitutional changes. The constitution would need to be changed for Suu Kyi to be allowed to run for president in 2015; her late husband was British, and the constitution bars relatives of foreign nationals from seeking the office.
Suu Kyi's party marked Armed Forces Day by calling on the military to work with the opposition to change the 2008 constitution, which it said is "not in accordance with democratic norms."
Suu Kyi, who has faced criticism from supporters for courting the military, did not speak to reporters in Naypyitaw.
The constitution also allows for the dissolution of Parliament and the transfer of power from the president to the commander in chief, in cases of national emergency.
Min Aung Hlaing emphasized the military's importance for maintaining national unity and sovereignty. He said his troops have never committed genocide and have "no hatred of any of the national races." He said his soldiers will abide by international humanitarian law and are trained to act in compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
The military been active in quashing ethnic unrest in the north, where a 17-year truce with Kachin rebels broke down in 2011. Last week, the Army was called in to contain sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar, where at least 40 people have been killed in clashes that are edging closer to the main city, Yangon.
Human Rights Watch warned Tuesday of a brewing humanitarian crisis in western Rakhine state, where a monsoon is expected to soon pound camps filled with displaced Muslims who fled ethnic and religious violence. The rights group estimates that 125,000 Muslims have been displaced by violence since June 2012.
The West has been reaching out to Myanmar's armed forces, despite continuing human rights concerns. The U.S. welcomed Myanmar as an observer at its annual Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand for the first time this year, and Australia recently said it would deepen its engagement with Myanmar's military. Both countries still ban arms sales to Myanmar.
Min Aung Hlaing called for modern weaponry and training and closer alliances with neighboring countries, particularly within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
While the world talks about change in Myanmar, some at the parade ground preferred to talk of continuity.
"The military has worked for the people in the past," said Htay Oo, vice-chairman of the ruling USDP party, as he made his way to his seat. "And they will continue to work for the people."