The Thanlwin Bridge and Mon political dilemma
Eight months after the military coup, many people are considering whether the subsequent course of events has proven the MUP decision wrong or right. Following its alliance with the new regime, the party were given one seat at the union level and one at the state level under the SAC. On 1 June, in one new initiative, they renamed the bridge which connects Mawlamyine and Belu Island from the “General Aung San Bridge” to “Thanlwin Bridge”. The name, though, that the Mon people prefer is “Ramanya”, a traditional term for Mon State.*
The reasons for this compromise change to Thanlwin, which is the river name, were given as pragmatic. As is recognised, Mon State is made up of different nationalities, and there are different political perspectives as well. No matter what the differences are, it is important that the vision of building a future federal state together must be the same. But, if there are no common goals or firm positions, the future of the Mon people will be swept away in the tide of current politics.
Thus a question arises: how can Mon political parties guarantee that their decisions are made on the basis of “do no harm” to their people? As long as I can remember, Mon politics have been struggling up until now. In 1995, after the New Mon State Party made a ceasefire agreement with the military government of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, Tatmadaw bases were expanded, people’s land was grabbed and many human rights violations carried out. As a result, although political dialogue has been held several times in the intervening years, the right to self-determination and federal state that the Mon people truly want still seem far away.
For the moment, it remains uncertain why the MUP is collaborating with the SAC. But it is sure that the Mon people do not want the Tatmadaw to be in their homeland for even a second. Nobody will be happy if the land that they inherited from their ancestors is grabbed and becomes military-owned property. But, since Mon issues are about Mon people, how can we resolve the political crisis that we are facing? Do we continue living according to the desire of dictators and under their orders? Or do we move forward, without self-interest, along with other nationality peoples so that our future generation will fully enjoy federal democracy?
Although our paths and approaches to reach our goal may be varied, it is essential that our objectives are the same. It is necessary to learn the strengths and weaknesses of different peace and political processes, and new steps should be taken. Unity of the Mon people is the power of the Mon people.
Before the military coup, people in Myanmar had already been struggling with their jobs and businesses due to the first and second waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. There were fewer job opportunities for the daily-wage workers, and it was not easy to have a meal each day. Many families were facing difficulties in their livelihoods due to the closure of markets, workplaces, transport and other facilities around the country.
After the military coup, the third Covid-19 wave followed, increasing the struggles of the ordinary people. Prices rose further as well as the number of jobless persons. Compounding the crisis, daily-wage workers face renewed difficulties due to travel restrictions imposed by the SAC. In some areas, families also lost their sources of income from wages earned from illegal immigration to Thailand, where many jobs have also been lost.
Following the NMSP’s 1995 ceasefire, people had been persuaded with the prospect of economic opportunities. However, until now, many working people are still struggling to even have regular meals. In the past, the fishery sector was the type of business which supported the economy of Mon State. But because of travel restrictions, it is presently difficult for people to come and buy products as well as for local people to go and sell their products. The worries in many communities are only increasing.
There are also many concerns over land. A recent case is the confiscation of farmlands for the airport project on Kaleguak Island, Ye township. Although the project is being implemented following the military coup, the affected communities have not been paid as yet. Said a local resident: “It is very difficult for us. We have been using the land on this island for our livelihoods since the time of our ancestors. But they came and confiscated the land, but we have heard nothing about compensation.”
There is thus a dilemma. Many lands have been confiscated with the purpose of expanding military camps, but very few people have received compensation. The economy is failing, but few people are receiving support. How do we solve these problems? Who should we ask to help us?
After the coup on 1 February, healthcare workers across the country decided not to work under the military regime, and many of them joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. There are hospitals but no health workers, and the health system has continued to deteriorate. Consequently, since the third Covid-19 wave is significantly worse than the first and second waves, many people have died who could otherwise have been treated.
Among those suffering, many are people living in Mon State. The collapse of the health system has become a perfect storm in many communities. Although people feel sick, the hospitals and clinics are shut down. In the past, there were many humanitarian organisations and charity groups that provided aid to local communities. But they, too, face challenges and delays in delivering services due to the SAC crackdown. Even though they are willing to help, they face security oppression. As a result, many lives have been lost during the past few months through the combination of a lack of treatment, medicines and SAC restrictions.
This raises the question of the MUP, which is cooperating with the SAC, and what they have achieved so far. They explained that they joined hands with the regime in order to improve the situation for the Mon people and prevent them from being harmed. But the Mon people are now in trouble, so how can they help?
For the moment, the Mon people are having to work in their own ways to protect themselves from the Covid-19 pandemic. To do this, they are undertaking their own fundraising and programmes to get the necessary medicines and supplies that will be used for the benefit of their own communities. Presently, there is no other way.
The current social and political situation in Mon State is not about being red (NLD) or green (Tatmadaw). There are many organisations with different colours. This creates a situation where people do not know who to trust. There are people who support the red and who like the green. Among them, there are people who support alignment with the military SAC and people who are against it. The MUP’s Nai Layi Tama, for example, was appointed as a Mon State economic minister. There have also been killings due to political violence in Mon State as well as cases of suicide since the SAC coup. According to a report by Lagoon Eain, 411 people were arbitrarily detained amidst protests during the Myanmar Spring Revolution that followed the military takeover. Mon State politics and society remain very unstable.
The peace process and New Mon State Party
It is now a quarter of a century since the NMSP ceasefire with the then SLORC government. Leaders chose to talk peace at the table instead of killing one another. The NMSP has been following this peace agreement until now, avoiding conflict as much as possible. However, although it has been 26 years since the ceasefire, neither the NMSP nor Mon people have achieved their goal of federal democracy and the right to self-determination.
Negotiating, however, with a military ruler is like people talking to each other while an unleashed tiger is still moving about. This is not just the Mon experience. According to the Pa-O National Organisation, which has also been involved in peace negotiations: “The current peace process is dark now and we don’t see any light. In the past, we could see a sparkle of light.”
The humanitarian and internally-displaced situation
Shortly after the coup, the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic occurred. Internally-displaced persons from Mon areas have fled from civil war many times and, even with the 1995 ceasefire, many could not return home. Since the February coup, the dream of IDPs to return has been pushed back even further. In the past, if there was fighting, they could flee and take refuge in Thailand or in a border area. But in the current crisis, it is very difficult to travel and nobody wants to accept IDPs any more.
Who, then, will take responsibility for the IDPs not to be homeless again? With the spread of the third wave, villages have been locked down, and there are people who cannot afford even a regular meal. The crisis means that it is more important for them to find food rather than to be afraid of Covid-19. As there is lockdown between villages, it is hard for people to work outside of the displacement camps.
The health crisis for the IDPs is also very serious. It is difficult for households in the camps to buy preventive masks and, if somebody contracts Covid-19, they have no choice but to remain at home, risk spreading the virus and face potential death. Health treatments are rarely available. A community member from Chaung Phya, an IDP camp in Ye township, described the IDP plight:
“It costs about 1000 Kyat for one mask. We can’t afford to buy it. We can buy a meal for our family with that 1000 Kyat. We just go and cut bamboo shoots and banana trunks everyday, but that is not sustainable. It is our hope that the disease will disappear quickly. We have no paddy and we have to buy rice. Now, all the prices have risen and it is really difficult for us.”
In this situation, local communities have been struggling against the humanitarian emergency as best they can. Since the coup, however, commodity prices have increased rapidly while the price of local products, such as lemons and bananas, has fallen even lower than before. Said a local resident:
“Now, we are not sure whether we have to be afraid of Covid-19 or not. We normally went to the hospital whenever we are sick and we could get treatment. But currently, it is like we are challenging death. We don’t know who to rely upon. Our future is very uncertain.”
In Mon politics, it is a time to question whether other people are leading us or are we following other people. Is it because of ethnicity? And why are the politics of “divide and rule” always working? Along with these questions, it is time to review the peace process for the whole country in the light of the military coup.
There are many points of view and analysis among the Mon people. In the current crisis, it is like walking but not moving forward, and there is a concern that our way will be lost altogether sooner or later. For many reasons, Mon politics are now in a very unpredictable situation. Therefore it is necessary to review past activities and, from this, learn and prepare for the future. It also important not to blame each other but to work together for the common good. Future generations in Mon State must enjoy a brighter future.
In many respects, the present situation repeats the moment when the Mon people tried to merge two different parties into the MUP. If the current differences in Mon politics can be rectified, then there is hope for a better future. If we are to achieve equality, the right to self-determination and federal democracy along with other nationality peoples, it is essential that we are united among ourselves. No matter how hard the journey is, if we can eradicate racism and work together with other peoples, then we can surely achieve our goal.
In summary, it is the duty of both the Mon people and their leaders to ensure that our identity does not disappear and that we remain free from oppression. If we are united and living in harmony, our goals will be in sight and remain very close to us.
* The naming of this bridge, which opened in 2017 under an administration led by the National League for Democracy, is controversial. General Aung San was the father of the NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. After its opening, Mon people continued to lobby for a name, such as Ramanya, that signifies Mon land and identity.
“Kun Wood” is the pseudonym for an activist engaged in Mon national and political affairs. She has been working on community development and the right to land for ethnic nationality peoples since 2006. She has carried out research on customary tenure in different parts of the country.