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Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi Attends Military Parade

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in yellow leaves after attending Burma’s 68th anniversary celebrations of Armed Forces Day, in Naypyidaw, March 27, 2013.
Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi stood side-by-side with the country's powerful army generals Wednesday during a military parade that served as a stunning display of the country's recent transformation.

The pro-democracy leader watched as the army that kept her in some form of detention for most of the past two decades demonstrated its military prowess at the event to mark Armed Forces Day. It was the first time she has attended the annual event in the capital, Naypyitaw.

Burma's top military commander, General Min Aung Hlaing, told the gathering the army will continue to play a central political role in order to move the country toward what he called a "modern democracy."

It was just two years ago that the army generals handed power to a nominally civilian government, ending more than four decades of direct military rule.

President Thein Sein, himself a former general, has since led a series of political and economic reforms that culminated in the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament last year.

Despite the reforms, seeing the Nobel laureate stand alongside the generals was shocking for many observers, including Htet Aung Kyaw, an ex-student activist who fled Burma in 1988.

"I was very, very surprised. For 25 years, we have never seen the opposition leader and the army appear in front of the Tatmadaw," Htet said. "But on the other hand, Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of parliament, so she should be there."

Aung San Suu Kyi's attendance at the parade is her latest attempt at reaching out to the military. She angered some earlier this year when she acknowledged "fondness" of the army, which was established by her father - the revolutionary war hero Aung San.

Mark Farmaner, with the rights group Burma Campaign UK, says that kind of statement is difficult to accept for those in Burma's ethnic areas who have long been on the receiving end of human rights abuses committed by the army.

"The Burmese army has for decades been raping, killing, torturing, executing, forcing millions from their homes, committing war crimes and crimes against humanity," he said. "When [those in ethnic areas] hear her say these things, they're very upset and for them it seems like a very insensitive thing to say."

But Farmaner adds Aung San Suu Kyi realizes that the only way to achieve meaningful change is to get the support of the military. Top on the agenda, he says, is changing the country's constitution, which guarantees the army a quarter of the seats.

"She's in a very difficult position. But I think it would be good if she were more robust in acknowledging and talking about the fact that the Burmese army that she's reaching out to is still committing war crimes."

While the government has reached ceasefires with many of the country's armed ethnic groups, the situation remains tense in many border areas.

The insecurity was underscored last week when Burma's government declared a state of emergency in four central states following deadly Buddhist-Muslim violence.

Referring to the conflicts, General Min Aung Hlaing said Wednesday that a strong military and more modern weaponry were necessary to maintain national unity and protect independence.

"Our independence came from all Burmese people including every ethnic minority - therefore we have to protect it. The conflict that is going on now, the army never wants that to happen again. It is our duty to be responsible for all the people," he said.