YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s military will retain its key role in the country’s fledgling democracy, the armed forces chief said on Wednesday at an annual parade attended for the first time by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing spoke as his soldiers enforced an uneasy peace in central Myanmar, where martial law was declared in four townships last week to quell anti-Muslim riots that officially killed 40 people.
The unrest between Buddhists and Muslims is spreading, posing the biggest challenge yet to a reformist government that took office in 2011 after nearly half a century of military rule.
Min Aung Hlaing said the military would continue to play a “leading political role” in accordance with Myanmar’s constitution, which was drafted by the former junta and reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military officers.
Early on Wednesday a mob in Nattalin, about 130 miles northwest of the commercial capital, Yangon, tried to destroy three houses and a mosque but were stopped by soldiers, a local government official told Reuters.
“So far as I know, nobody was injured and nothing burnt down,” he said. Dusk-to-dawn curfews are now in place in Nattalin and five nearby townships.
President Thein Sein has won praise for freeing jailed dissidents, relaxing media censorship and trying to fix Myanmar’s dysfunctional economy.
But his government has also been criticized for failing to stem last year’s violence in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, where officials say 110 people were killed and 120,000 were left homeless, most of them Rohingya Muslims.
In his speech at the Armed Forces Day parade in the capital, Naypyitaw, Min Aung Hlaing expressed the military’s loyalty to Thein Sein, himself a former general, before watching a procession of troops and military hardware, including truck-borne missiles.
The military was helping to build “an eternally peaceful and developing nation”, he said.
Human rights groups have long accused Myanmar’s military of war crimes and crimes against humanity in its campaigns against armed rebels from ethnic groups such as the Kachin and Shan.
“All our members are being trained in the provisions of the Geneva Convention so our Tatmadaw do not commit any war crimes,” said Min Aung Hlaing, referring to the military by a Burmese word meaning “Royal Force”. “There is no such thing as genocide in the history of our Tatmadaw.”
Among the guests was Suu Kyi, who spent a total of 15 years in prison or under house arrest under the former junta. She is the daughter of independence hero General Aung San, who founded the modern Myanmar army.
Suu Kyi upset some supporters in January by expressing her “fondness” for the military, which still refuses to acknowledge its well-documented human rights abuses.
In a statement on Wednesday, her National League for Democracy party called on the armed forces “to take part in working for the rule of law, the emergence of peace and amending the constitution”.
Anti-Muslim unrest promises to further expand the military’s role, however. Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. There are large communities in Yangon, Mandalay and towns across Myanmar’s heartland, which is dominated by the majority Burmans, who are Buddhists.
Yangon remains tense, with the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday advising its citizens to avoid the downtown Mingalar Market area after a fight there led to a heavy police presence.
Myanmar’s government “would not hesitate to push the army in” to prevent further unrest, Vijay Nambiar, U.N. Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Myanmar, has told Reuters.
Communal tension, stifled under military rule, exploded to the surface last June, after 10 Muslims were beaten to death by a Buddhist mob in Taungop town in Rakhine State.
Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday the Muslims displaced in Rakhine State had effectively been segregated, living in squalid camps that security forces stopped them leaving. The government was restricting aid, it added, warning of a humanitarian crisis when the rainy season comes in May.
(This story corrects title in paragraph 2 to Senior General from Vice Senior General)
Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson