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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar junta holds military parade with Russian attendance

Despite show of force, army faces myriad problems it has no strategy for

Troops parade in Naypyitaw on March 27 during Armed Forces Day, the Myanmar military's most important annual event.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Myanmar's military, which seized control in a coup on Feb. 1, held a military parade in Naypyitaw to celebrate the annual Armed Forces Day, but the pomp and circumstance of the occasion will not gloss over the range of problems it faces.

Saturday's event, which featured a march-past, was televised in hopes that the show of strength will put residents off protesting against the coup.

Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin attended the ceremony, and on Friday, he met with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the military.

During Saturday's ceremony, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing gave a speech and reiterated a promise to hold elections, without mentioning a schedule. He also welcomed the presence of the Russians at the ceremony and said, "Russia is a true friend."

The military is trying to justify its power grab with efforts to rebuild the country's economy, which has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. But the turmoil in the wake of the coup refuses to ease as protesters continue to resist military rule. With no end in sight, the crackdown is starting to hit private-sector businesses and unnerving investors.

Myanmar's Armed Forces Day, the most important annual event for the force, commemorates the army's rebellion in 1945 against Japanese occupation. Ahead of this event, the military has been stepping up its crackdown on protesters. The ceremony was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. Usually, foreign countries send military attaches to the event, but this year, many countries, especially Western democracies, refrained from attending.

Eight countries -- Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand -- sent representatives to the Armed Forces Day military parade in Naypyitaw, Nikkei has learned. The representatives are military attaches, in addition to Russian Deputy Defense Minister Fomin.

In Yangon, there have been sporadic demonstrations early in the morning and at night when protesters are less likely to be detained by security forces. Mass rallies in city centers have been quelled by police and, according to the nonprofit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, at least 328 people have been killed during protests.

Despite its heavy-handed methods, the junta is struggling to gain control. A growing number of public servants, bankers, employees in other key industries are deserting their jobs en masse in a civil disobedience movement to demand the release of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

In a "silent strike" on Wednesday, protesters stayed home, leaving Yangon streets deserted. Authorities detained some 100 protesters overnight, including employees at City Mart Holding, Myanmar's largest supermarket and convenience store operator, which closed all its stores, and Aeon Orange, which is partly owned by Japan's Aeon.

Local media Myanmar Now reported Thursday that "top officials of several private banks" were also detained.

Given such resistance, the junta's attempts at reviving the private sector are falling flat. Immediately after the coup, Min Aung Hlaing had summoned senior executives of major business organizations to Naypyitaw to assure them the junta would not change the country's economic policy.

The State Administration Council, set up by the junta in February, is aiming to rebuild the economy, including stabilizing markets, attracting foreign capital and improving medical services as well as education.

Yet, most hospitals are now closed, as doctors have led the civil disobedience movement. Schools are also closed due to the pandemic and it is unclear when they will reopen.

Against such unrest, the junta still faces a long-standing conflict with armed minority ethnic groups. The SAC stressed its commitment to seeking permanent peace with them but many of the armed groups are aligned with the protesters.

At least one of these groups have been blamed for harboring pro-democracy activists fleeing the junta. Some activists are believed to have fled to areas along Myanmar's border with Thailand to take refuge in the region controlled by the Karen National Union. A senior military officer said more than 1,000 people have fled to the border in the southeast to evade arrest or detention.

In northern parts of the nation, the military is facing intensifying attacks from the Kachin Independence Army.

Saturday's events are the military's chance to demonstrate its prowess but media and analysts will be closely watching to see which countries show their friendship to the regime by sending their diplomats to attend.

Normality now seems elusive. The military is grappling with a tumultuous situation that it does not have a clear strategy to get out of.

The head of a local office of a Japanese trading house offers a gloomy assessment of the situation. "Myanmar has been touted as the last economic frontier of Southeast Asia, but its future has become deeply uncertain."

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