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Mon Political Resistance, the Peace Agreement, and National Reconciliation in the modern Federal Union of Myanmar / Burma — Part-I

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By Banya Hongsar, MNA

Introduction

Peace is a desire of each individual in Myanmar (Burma) and beyond, as a new trend of liberal democracy and economic development has emerged in Southeast Asia in the past half century. Peace, prosperity, justice, and a sustainable livelihood is a desire of each man and woman on earth.
The religions and customs of each community must be supported to preserve diverse values, identities, and philosophies in the contemporary world. Mon people in lower Burma will be living on the land for thousands of years to come, as long as can humanly be imagined.

Myanmar’s political transition in the last twenty years, involving Mon political resistance, the Peace Agreement, and the adoption of modern Federalism in Myanmar, has largely been ignored by the outside world. Progressive Mon leaders held civic roles within the Burmese-led anti-British political movements in the early 20th century. In the last five hundred years, Mon people’s social, cultural, and political institutions have been integrated into Burmese communities in lower Myanmar where concentrations of Mon people reside in the country.

Myanmar’s new leaders, from across the political spectrum, have been searching for a mutually beneficial road to democracy that will attract foreign investment to the country. All parties agree that a cease-fire and other reform agendas proposed by the new Parliament would improve foreign investment in local areas.

The author, Nai Banyar Hongsar
The author, Nai Banyar Hongsar

The Myanmar Government is set to hold another Union Peace Conference before the end of 2019. Mon leaders, along with both armed and unarmed political forces, are having the credibility of their leadership tested at State- and Union-level. The Peace Conference is a chance to see whether a window is open for a real political settlement under the newly proposed constitution.

This essay historically contextualizes Mon resistance, the Peace Agreement and the reconciliation between Mon political organizations and the government of the Union of Myanmar in the modern era. The essay documents Mon political organizations and movements during the country’s political transition to the Democratic Federal Union of Myanmar.

Mon political resistance since the 1920s

Prior to Burma’s independence, Mon political activists, youth leaders, and urban educators formed a Mon social and cultural organization, the All Mon Ramoanya Association, in 1938. Mon educators, scholars, and business people based in Rangoon (Yangon) led the Association. Prominent leaders included Mon Kyan (Pegu), Mon Chit Thoung, Mon Ba Daw, Mon Dwe, Mon S Ba Thein, and Mon Pho Cho, to name a few. Many other people joined in pursuit of greater cultural autonomy.

During the Independence movement, a few young progressive Mon political thinkers, such as Mon Pho Cho, Mon Ba Lwin (a.k.a. Nai Shwe Kyin), and Mon Than emerged out of a Burmese political campaign for Independence. These Mon leaders were seeking greater cultural autonomy for the Mon people in Lower Burma (Myanmar). These Mon leaders formed different political groups to campaign in the democratic elections of 1947.

Mon progressive political leaders formed the Mon Political Alliance in 1946 under the leadership of Mon Pho Cho, Mon Ba Lwin (Nai Shwe Kyin), and Mon Hla Maung. However, they failed to win seats in the 1947 election.

Instead, the elections ushered in a Burmese-dominated government that repeatedly ignored the legitimacy of Mon cultural rights and rejected several proposals from Mon leaders for greater cultural autonomy for Mon people in Mon regions. During negotiations for cultural autonomy, Mon leaders lost faith in U Nu’s Burmese-dominated administration and his Burmese nationalist ministry.

The Mon Political Alliance regrouped in 1948 with a new political mission. Under the leadership of Mon Hla Maung, Mon Tun Thein, Mon Ngwe Thein, Mon Ba Lwin, Mon Plan Tha and Mon Aung Tun, to name a few, the Mon Political Alliance consolidated their efforts to establish local autonomy. They advocated for the appointment of a Mon Affairs Minister, Police commissioner, and Chief Judge. However they were rejected again by Burmese politicians.

Hundreds of young Mon men gathered arms and formed a military wing of the Mon Political Alliance in 1948. A few young Mon men, led by Bo Pan Than and Bo Thein, launched an armed attack on local government militia in Zar Tha Pyin Village (in Burmese terms) near Moulmein city (Mawlamyine) on August 19, 1948, giving birth to a Mon Revolution. Mon resistance spread all over the Mon region and August 19th has since been celebrated as Mon Resistance Day.

After over ten years of armed resistance, the Mon armed political alliance and the Mon People’s Front (MPF) reached a cease-fire agreement with the government in 1958.

On July 23, 1958, Mon leaders led by Nai Aung Tun, chairman of the MPF, signed a cease-fire agreement with the U Nu Government. The Mon leader and his comrades held a public conference during the peace ceremony in Molumein (Mawlamyine), the old capital of the Mon Kingdom. Nai Aung Tun concluded his key note speech both in Mon and Burmese by saying that “quality political rights under a parliamentary-democracy is our core mission, and we are against a narrow-minded national assimilation policy in our country.”

Fifty-four years after this first peace agreement between the armed Mon political leaders and the government of Burma, the goal of equal political rights has yet to be achieved. History is not just our past, but also a lesson for current leaders.

The New Mon State Party (NMSP) was founded in 1958 in response to a lack of recognition of Mon cultural and political rights from the Burmese Government. Nai Ba Lwin (aka Nai Shwe Kyin) founded the party with the support of progressive Mon youth leaders and few Mon soldiers who refused to disarmed to the government.

Ethnic leaders met on June 8,1961 at the Taung Gyi Conference to discuss the formation of the Federal Union of Burma. A delegation of Mon leaders, led by Nai Hla Muang attended the conference. Nai Hla Maung addressed the multi-ethnic delegations and stated that Burma had two unresolved issues: first, Burman nationalism, and secondly, narrow minded policy toward assimilation of ethnic minorities. Unless these two issues were addressed, a unity would never be achieved, and the Union would never be established. Mon leaders were seeking an equal partnership in Burma’s social, cultural and political affairs. At that time, Mon leaders were only being acknowledged in local politics.

Although a few Mon leaders had left in favour of armed struggle in early 1948 and late 1949, after efforts for constitutional rights became increasingly futile, many of the Mon ruling elites based in Rangoon (Yangon) and Moulmein (Mawlamyine) looked for options for constitutional change in the late 1960s. Mon leaders later demanded the creation of a new Mon State under the new constitution of 1974. Mon State was created in 1974 thanks to the efforts of Nai Hla Maung and the Mon Political Alliance and the support of the Mon people.

Reviewing the events in the last half century in our country, Mon political effectiveness is undeniable. A Mon State was created under the new constitution of Burma (Myanmar) in 1974. Moulmein (Mawlamyine) was named the capital city of Mon State and has become the third largest commercial city of Burma (Myanmar).

The Peace Agreements and National Cease-fire Agreement (1995 – 2018)

A cease-fire agreement is only a minor component of peace-building. Unless the government amends laws and the constitution in both the State and Union parliaments after a cease-fire agreement, peace will not be achieved. Mon people and other ethnic minorities deserve no less than the Burman majority in terms of access to education, healthcare, and political representation. Current peace agreements should include action plans with provisions for equal decision making processes, local ownership of public projects, public works, further resource allocation, and foreign investment proposals.

Peace agreements must include provisions for relevant issues such as teaching ethnic languages in public schools, using ethnic languages in the courts, allowing children to use their ethnic names when applying for citizenship or an identity card, creating local municipal services, and conducting religious education at ethnic cultural events.

Public schools within the Seven States (Chin, Kachin, Rakhine, Shan, Karen, Karenni, and Mon) and other special regional autonomies must be granted the right to teach and use native languages from primary school to secondary school in all subjects. Local colleges run by respective ethnic education boards or community colleges with federal government funding should be opened in each state.

Mon leaders and other ethnic minority leaders cannot afford to miss this opportunity to be at the negotiation table in the coming months, as the Myanmar Government has agreed to hold a Union Peace Conference before the end of 2019. These next rounds of peace negotiations must include a list of provisions to ensure fair and equal decision making in federal and state governments funding allocations and tax codes.

Furthermore, the current constitution (adapted in 2008) affords little legal and constitutional rights to ethnic minorities, despite the Burmese-dominated government’s claim that 94 percent of the population approves of the constitution. The Mon State government is much like a local municipal council, but has little power and few resources for local economic development, education, healthcare, and other social issues. Cease-fire agreements must be reviewed with a fair and equal decision making process, locally and at the higher State and Federal levels of governance.
The New Mon State Party signed the cease-fire agreement with the Government of the Union of Myanmar in three phases, the first in 1995, the second in 2012, and the third in 2018. The cease-fire agreements were part of a larger political transition in the country. A summary of the peace agreement will be discussed in detail in the next section of the essay.

Mon leaders and politicians have to draw new action plans for public works projects, such as healthcare clinics, education programs, sports and recreation facilities, environmental protection initiatives, and local trades and community-based business development.

Mon leaders most effectively advance Mon autonomy through negotiation, political settlements, and proposals. Mon leaders only hold arms as a political bargaining tool. Successive Mon leaders have written and published, in both Mon and Burmese languages, on the pursuit of a non-violent political movement in the modern era. Nai Shwe Kyin is the author of a few books. Current leaders of the NMSP, both the chair and deputy chair, have published close to twenty books in both Mon and Burmese language and written many articles in the past fifty years.

Political advancement toward national reconciliation and subsequent resistance (1948 – 2018)

Between 1988 and 1990, a new Mon political party, the Mon National Democratic Front (MNDF) was formed and registered under the chairmanship of the late Nai Tun Thein and his deputy Nai Ngwe Thein. The party ran for seats in the 1990 general election. A new Mon political solidarity emerged in the late 1990s as the MNDF sought non-violent means to achieve greater autonomy for Mon people.

In 2010, the military government of Myanmar announced a new general election for a multi-party system. Progressive Mon leaders (ex- NMSP members, ex- public servants and ex-soldiers) agreed to form a new party and registered under the name of All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMDP).
The party won sixteen seats in the general election in 2010. After five years of social, cultural and political advancement, Mon politicians again competed in the general election in 2015. However, this time, Mon leaders had a negative outcome, because they ran as two different political parties. The Mon National Party (MNP) won one seat in the Union Assembly and two seats in the State Assembly. AMDP won only one seat in the Mon State Assembly.

The pursuit for Mon political consolidation re-emerged in late 2015. Mon community based organizations (CBOs) condemned the disunity of Mon politicians. After facing strong pressure from Mon CBOs, the MNP and AMDP unified in early 2019 and registered as a new Mon Unity Party (MUP). Since 2015, Mon political establishments had no choice but to fully engage in both the electoral and peace process in order to give Mon people a voice at the national level.

The New Mon State Party (NMSP) and it’s own armed wing, the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), reached an unsigned cease-fire agreement on June 29, 1995 with the ruling military government. After seventeen years of political deadlock on the peace and negotiation process, the party re-entered into a cease-fire agreement at the state-level in January 2012 and finally signed the National Cease-fire Agreement (NCA) in February in 2018 with the newly elected National League for Democracy government under the chairmanship of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

NMSP Chairman General Nai Htaw Mon (Age, 73) and Deputy Chair Nai Hong Sa (Age 70) have been strengthening the party’s legitimacy and its proposal for Mon constitutional rights since the Union Peace Conference in 2015. After seventy years of political and military consolidation, the New Mon State Party is reasserting its political demands in the modern era. Having served in the Resistance Force since 1968 (almost fifty years), Chairman Nai Htaw Mon and Deputy Chairman Nai Hong Sa are well aware of the Mon people’s situation, the socio-political environment, and the challenge on their hands. Both leaders published many books, articles, and guidebooks to inform the next generation of NMSP leaders of the party’s position and direction.

Some NMSP leaders and key senior officials went through university within Myanmar’s education system and have therefore been capable of facilitating and advocating in the different phases of peace negotiations over the past twenty years. Although the New Mon State Party – with an armed wing, the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA) – largely operated outside the country’s legal framework, they were a key political organization that paved the way for the non-armed, legal Mon Unity Party (MUP) to contest the up-coming general election. In fact, key senior leaders of MUP are either ex-NMSP members or members affiliated with its core political establishment in the 1990s. Almost all Mon political leaders are well connected to local community-based organizations (CBOs), in terms of recruitment, engagement, and promotion of its core objectives.

Since the 1990s, Mon political leaders have been strengthening Mon institutions through capacity building, youth leadership training, and community association management. In fact, NMSP publishes their New Mon State’s Journal in Mon and Burmese annually. However, the Mon political movement has been derailed on several occasions in the past thirty years when key members split within its ranks or clashed due to personality differences . The path to peace, self-determination, and a federal government is far more complex than the battle line.

Over the past sixty years, the New Mon State Party has faced border disputes with the allied Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), since both the KNU and NMSP established military camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. However, the political leadership within the party has proven that addressing a dispute with allies through discussions is more strategic.

Part II to be continued >>

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