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The Role of Mon Leaders in Burma’s Peace Process

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Banya Hongsar – During his five-country European tour last month, President U Thein Sein spoke in a lengthy interview with U Khin Maung Win, the deputy executive director of the Democratic Voice of Burma. The head of state expressed himself eloquently in Burmese, but it is worth conveying his words in English to reach a wider audience. The message was loud and clear: he is determined to find a way to bring peace to Burma during his presidential term. After many long decades of armed conflict, the nation undoubtedly deserves peace for all. As a native Mon from Burma, this, too, is my vision for the country and its regions.

Over the past 65 years, Mon opposition forces were frequently engaged in violent struggle with the Burmese government and military. The slender ribbon of Mon State in southern Burma, hemmed in by wild coastline, rivers, and large forests, is a site where many Mon leaders and soldiers sacrificed their lives and the Mon population faced enduring hardship. In early 2012, the New Mon State Party, the main ethnic Mon resistance group, signed a new ceasefire agreement, heralding a time to reflect on the past to ensure a better future.

At this point, the elephant is in the room. For better or worse, the Mon people currently have three major institutions representing them in the lead up to the 2015 election. Along with the NMSP that has yet to establish an official political party, the All Mon Regions Democracy Party (AMDP) formed to contest in the 2010 elections and won only 16 seats. The Mon Democracy Party (MDP), formerly the Mon National Democratic Front, chaired by veteran Mon politicians and former members of the NMSP, was formally registered last year in preparation for 2015.

I have observed and regularly communicated with various Mon politicians and trustworthy sources from Mon State and am well informed that the party merger between the AMDP and MDP, slated to happen before the close of 2014, cannot transpire unless a win-win deal is struck. Even if the unification comes to pass, it will not guarantee that Mon candidates will win 70% of the vote in Mon State.

The looming challenge over the coming 24 months is for political stakeholders to test the leadership’s resolve among Mon politicians who have diverging generational and party ties. The estimated three million Mon people deserve stable, committed leaders and a sense of hope for new political dynamics in their lifetimes.

However, in the political context of Burma, money talks. In the run-up to the 2015 election, the three Mon groups will have fewer financial resources to draw on when compared to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National League for Democracy (NLD). Strategic and underfunded political players might not be able to cope with pressure from rival parties in the form of bribery or other means of persuasion. Thailand’s system of democracy is a useful example that an election may be free, but not clean or fair.

Despite the current fractures, the shared objective among Mon leaders and Mon members of parliament from all political persuasions remains that the next battle is not solely about winning votes, but hinges on securing self-determination rights for Mon State under the principles of a union. It is also generally accepted that a future Mon State must be formed under the guidance of a majority of ethnically Mon parliamentarians.

In line with a government proposal, the top leaders of the New Mon State Party and the two registered political parties will call a Mon National Peace Conference in Moulmein, the capital of Mon State. President U Thein Sein announced to the media that his government supports the Mon National Peace Conference and sees it as laying the foundation for lasting peace across the country.

The conference will invite representatives from Mon political parties, Mon civil society organizations, and the Mon Monks Council that includes women’s groups and student associations. For two to three days, participants will focus on finding the route to lasting peace that can be legally bound into a revised Mon State constitution. In the early 1990s, Mon community and resistance leaders began advocating for Mon self-determination through political means, and the Mon National Conference has been held in liberated areas every year since. The conference promotes civil and political rights guaranteed to the country’s people in the United Nations Conventions to which Burma is a signatory.

A sincere and legitimate Union of Burma [Myanmar] will be born only when Mon and other ethnic leaders approve a “United States of Burma” under a new constitution and a more democratic and transparent political system.

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