Page last updated at 16:36 GMT, Saturday, 27 March 2010

Burma military rulers give hints of change

Statues of ancient Burmese warrior-kings on the parade ground

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Nay Pyi Taw

The vast, concrete parade ground shook as thousands of Burmese troops stamped their feet and stood to attention for their senior general, Than Shwe, who addressed the military on Armed Forces Day.

They marched unit by unit, saluted by their commander-in-chief, their patriotic songs echoing across the huge parade ground, overlooked by three giant statues of ancient Burmese warrior-kings.

Symbols of historical strength, they say a great deal about the man at the head of this 400,000 strong army - a man who sees it as the guardian of the nation, where power is unquestioned and opposition is not tolerated.

Gen Shwe addressed his ranks and the country - the whole thing was broadcast live on TV - in a short but firm speech.

Level playing field?

The only section highlighted in bold in the English translation presented to the few foreign journalists was "the nation will be strong only when the armed forces are strong".

There was a message for "external powers... who usually interfere and take advantage of their own interests" to stay away - a swipe perhaps at the UN's condemnation of the election laws.

Gen Shwe reviews the troops
The army shows few signs of leaving power

A warning to opposition groups against "improper or inappropriate campaigning" sat uncomfortably alongside a pledge the forthcoming elections will be "free and fair."

The opposition here and many foreign countries believe the election will be anything but free or fair, given the election laws which ban thousands of political prisoners from office.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy (NLD) party has not yet decided if it will take part, but she has made it clear she is against the party's participation.

There are 2,100 political prisoners, an election commission appointed by the generals and some ambiguities to the law which tilt the balance squarely in the military's favour.

The invitation of foreign journalists to come to the country and the parade, in a place normally closed to reporters, could be read in a variety of ways.

Thousands paraded before the junta's leader

Either the military want to open up to gain the legitimacy they would like for the election, and more journalist visas and invitations will follow, or it was a good opportunity to show their strength and resolve to the outside world, and the door will soon slam shut.

Although we were free to move around the new Burmese capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, people were afraid to talk, and such is the climate of fear when it come to politics, it was difficult to find anyone who would even help translate.

To be seen helping a BBC reporter, even one invited in by the government, could result in a knock at the door late at night, one man told me.

Empty streets

Nay Pyi Taw itself is a strange place.

Amid the vast flower- and tree-lined avenues and eight-lane highways are lavish government ministry buildings, scattered among the hills and shallow valleys of what once was scrubland 250 miles (402km) north of Rangoon.

Gaudy fountains adorn beautifully tended roundabout flower beds and a slightly smaller replica of the famous golden Shwedagon pagoda in the former capital gleams in the hazy sunshine.

Construction worker in Nay Pyi Taw
Construction works continues apace in Nay Pyi Taw

Doric pillars adorn luxurious houses for important military officers, a glitzy shopping mall sells flat-screen TVs and fridge freezers to a soundtrack of Beatles cover music.

Building work goes on at a seemingly frenetic pace, but yet there are few cars on the roads; empty and abandoned bus stops stand without passengers, let alone buses; and there is an eerie lack of soul to this whole fabricated city.

The country's capital was moved here according to the astrological calendar, perhaps to make it harder for an invading power or to shrug off the colonial past.

But certainly it was on the whim of the country's few rulers, who care more about the excessive infrastructure and show of wealth than the health and education of their people.

The elections may not be free and fair in a Western sense, but some aid workers and diplomats here argue at least it is some change, some movement after years of stagnation.

Gen Shwe's "gentle transition to democracy and market-orientated economics" may sound hollow, but there is little here to be optimistic about, and where there is even limited chance for change, there is hope.

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