NAYPYIDAW — Burma’s military chief said during an annual military celebration Thursday that eliminating ethnic armed conflicts is the most important factor for the country, and reiterated his support for ongoing negotiations toward a nationwide ceasefire.
In his speech at the 69th Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw, commemorating the day the Burmese army took up arms against Japanese fascist forces on March 27, 1945, the commander-in-chief of Burma’s armed forces Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing stressed the importance of peace and stability in bringing development to the country.
To mark the event, 9,009 Burma Army soldiers marched in five columns at a parade ground in Naypyidaw, where the military also displayed some of its tanks, armored personnel carriers, mobile radar systems and truck-mounted rockets.
The military chief warned that political dialogue with ethnic armed groups should not take place until a ceasefire is signed. He argued that any agreements made without a ceasefire could breakdown, leading to renewed conflict and delays in the peace process.
“The nationwide ceasefire is important for our eternal peace, so all ethnic armed groups must be legalized by all means in the achievement of this process,” he said.
Since independence in 1948, the Burma Army has fought border wars with ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Shan and Karen, which have pressed for greater autonomy or even full independence.
President Thein Sein’s government, which took office in 2011, has been pushing a peace process, and has brought 16 of the country’s ethnic armed groups to negotiations over a nationwide ceasefire agreement. Over the same period, however, at times intense fighting between the Burma Army and rebels in Kachin State and northern Shan State has displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
Min Aung Hlaing’s speech came as there are concerns that the peace process is stalling. Talks have been repeatedly delayed and some ethnic armed groups—the ethnic Palaung militia, the Wa and the Restoration Council of Shan State, for instance—are not fully participating in the process. The government has said, however, that it plans to hold a meeting to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement next month.
In his 31-minute-long speech at the parade—attended by senior military officials, Burma’s main opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, lawmakers and international military attachés—the Burmese commander-in-chief said the stability and cohesion of the country are the most important matters.
“Thus, may I urge you to be aware of your words and deeds that will reflect negative images on our union solidarity and peace,” he said.
He also boasted that the Tatmadaw—the name for Burma’s military—had laid down the infrastructure on which the country was now becoming democratic, and has arranged for a smooth transition. But he also hinted of the army’s continuing role in national politics.
“Our Tamadaw will strongly work to implement a disciplined democratic system,” he said.
Min Aung Hlaing is not the only one who this week publicly addressed the military’s role in Burma’s political future. On Wednesday morning, Thein Sein gave a speech to mark the third anniversary of his reformist government, in which he insisted that the military still has a political role to play in Burma during the democratic transition and the completion of the peace process.
In response to the president’s remarks, Suu Kyi said that the role of the military must be to support a civilian political system. “I’d rather see the army as professionals who the people love. [And] the peace process can be solved with political means,” the National League for Democracy leader said.
Speaking about the controversial 2008 Constitution, Min Aung Hlaing said the charter is not designed only for one party, one organization, one ethnic group and the military, but was approved by 26.7 million voters.
“We have to respect the desire of the voters, 92.48 percent of the whole population. The reform [of the charter] must be done following the law prescribed in [the Constitution’s] Chapter 12: Reforming of the Constitution,” he said, referring to the part of the charter that gives the military an effective veto over constitutional amendments.
The Constitution was drafted by the military government and approved by a referendum in 2008 that was widely seen as rigged, and a campaign is now underway, led by Suu Kyi, to amend it ahead of elections in 2015. The current Constitution guarantees the military a role in politics and a quarter of Parliamentary seats, bars Suu Kyi from becoming president and is widely opposed by Burma’s ethnic minorities.