The Current Crisis in Myanmar: The Different Political Position of the Mon People

A Myanmar Commentary by Min Naing Soon
02 နိုဝင်ဘာလ 2021
Article

In the 2020 general election, the Mon Unity Party made a strong showing, encouraging hopes of a political breakthrough. These were abruptly ended by the February coup of the State Administration Council. Since this time, Mon politics have become divided. Amidst countrywide breakdown, some leaders have accepted cooperation with the SAC, others declare support for the opposition National Unity Government, while others urge caution for the Mon people. Min Naing Soon analyses the dilemmas facing the Mon movement, explaining why lessons from history need to be learned.

စာေရးသူ
1,000-strong protest march against the SAC coup, Mawlamyine, Mon State capital
1,000-strong protest march against the SAC coup, Mawlamyine, Mon State capital

It has been more than half a year since the military State Administration Council seized control of the government. The SAC leaders said that they took political power in accordance with the law. However, as peoples of all nationalities believe that the national armed forces (Tatmadaw) may seek to govern under military rule for many more years, different forms of non-violent protest movement quickly broke out across the country. These struggles are continuing.
 
Before political transition began in Myanmar in 2011, the military regime had full authority in the country. There was no freedom in daily life. Therefore people say that they do not want to live again under military leaders who are self-centred and only concerned about their personal positions. For this reason, the public in Myanmar have desired to show their opposition towards a political system where a military regime will become dominant once again. The outcome is the conduct of what has become globally recognised as a “revolution against military dictatorship”.
 

The Myanmar Spring Revolution: a protest against dictatorship

The “Spring Revolution” in Myanmar was a non-violent protest by people from all ethnic backgrounds as well as students and politicians from different classes against military rule. Media coverage showed different kinds of non-violent actions against the military coup. These included street demonstrations, the Civil Disobedience Movement by civil servants, and different images, photos and graffiti protesting against military dictatorship which were shared through online social media platforms. Until now, protests are still taking place in some towns and cities in ethnic nationality areas. 
 
When, however, the Spring Revolution gained momentum, soldiers, police officers and their supporters shot at, arrested and detained protesters, killing many and imposing restrictions on people’s daily lives. This had an immediate impact. Because students and leaders of the non-violent movement wanted to escape from detention by the security services, many fled to territories administered by ethnic armed opposition organisations which are locally known as “liberated areas”. Other people continued to travel around in different towns and villages across the country. Meanwhile an increasing number of politicians involved in the anti-coup movement also fled to the border areas or outside of the country, where they continued organising anti-coup protest in accordance with their party positions.
 

Power struggle between military and civilian government

During the Spring Revolution, politicians from the National League of Democracy, which won the 2020 general election, formed a Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. Subsequently, they established a National Unity Government, including NLD party members and ethnic politicians, as a parallel government in opposition to the SAC. Since this time, they have pursued two strategies. They have been trying to form a political alliance with ethnic political parties and ethnic armed organisations. And they have also tried to be recognised and conduct diplomacy as a legal government in the international community on the basis that the NUG was formed by elected members of parliament. 
 
Meanwhile, many of the anti-coup protesters, students and leaders who fled to areas administered by EAOs attended short-term military training classes, and some also formed People’s Defence Forces. These PDFs are now hiding in different parts of the country, with different names in different areas. But, though separate, they are working in coordination to build up their strength. On 7 September, the NUG also made a formal announcement to start a national uprising against the SAC as a right of “people’s defensive warfare”. 
 
The military generals, in contrast, have wanted to show that the coup was undertaken in accordance with the law. They have repeatedly said through the state-controlled media that they had to “take over” control because the winning party, the NLD, was trying to gain power by voter fraud in the 2020 election. Thus, when the elected MPs were preparing to call a union assembly to form a new government, the Tatmadaw leadership seized national power, declaring the new SAC. Some civilian members were also included in its formation.
 
In response to non-violent protests against the military attempt to impose a new administration, the people faced a violent crackdown, many were arrested (or their relatives were detained as substitutes), and numerous threats were issued. Then, on 1 August, the SAC chair and Tatmadaw commander-in-chief, Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, announced the formation of a “caretaker government” where he acts as prime minister. He also said that the Tatmadaw will continue to hold on to power until August 2023, when a general election will be held on time. 
 
Against this backdrop of crisis, there have been many other troubles. There have been political instabilities due to the Covid-19 pandemic, economic recession affecting all peoples, negative impact on education, deprivation in healthcare and social difficulties in daily lives across the country. Every day, there are the sounds of war, guns and bombs. In urban areas, assassinations, detentions and killings have been continuously reported. As a result, many parts of the country have become war-zones because of fighting between the two sides, and the number of refugees and internally displaced persons is increasing.
 
In summary, the political battle between the “caretaker government” of the SAC and the NUG, which includes MPs-elect, is becoming ever more intense. 
 

The Mon Unity Party: a member of the SAC

After the coup, the SAC approached leaders of the Mon Unity Party, a political party which supports the Mon people, two times. First, they asked for a representative to join the SAC; and, second, for a representative to join the Union Administration Council at the Mon State level. In response, the MUP leaders agreed after they held two party meetings: one with the central working committee and one with the party central committee. “The party decided to join the State Administrative Council because they want to have a discussion rather than a confrontation,” Naing La Yi Tama, MUP joint secretary (1), explained to the media. 
 
There were, however, some contradictions within the party. A few of the MUP executive committee did not agree with the decision made by the other members. Even though some township members disagreed with them, the executive committee members also organised township-level meetings to explain their decision.
 
As the argument deepened, a group of Mon youths who supported the party also held a discussion in the party office. Their concerns were as follows: representing the party and participating in the SAC could reduce popularity and people’s support for the MUP; it could affect the unity of the Mon people and unity within the party; the Mon political choice could be criticised; and the future politics of MUP leaders and the new generation of Mon politicians will be shaken. They therefore recommended the MUP not to allow the two people to join the SAC as party representatives but as individual persons. For the sake of Mon unity, the New Mon State Party, which is a Mon EAO, also made a statement calling for the MUP to reconsider its decision. 
 
According to the explanations of MUP leaders, we can make the conclusion that the MUP joined the SAC for these reasons:
  • to solve political problems in a political way
  • not to compete with the Tatmadaw which has control over the three branches of state power and have enough weapons and human resources
  • no bloodshed of Mon people in Mon State because of protests against brutality by a military that is used to practising dictatorship
  • not to harm the daily life of the Mon people who want to live peacefully
  • the MUP will not be abolished because of opposition to military rule.
This, though, did not end the matter. Because of the decision to join the SAC, over twenty executive committee members (over one third of the committee) withdrew from the party. Some of the township-level members also resigned from the party because they did not want to accept the leadership decision.
 
On the question of acceptance or rejection, there are also some leaders and members who stayed silent for different reasons. There are, for example, MUP members, as well as Mon people, who supported the party decision. There are also leaders who think that the current action of the military regime is only to “hold power” but not to “seize power”. For this reason, MUP officials told the media that they assume that there is a different meaning between “holding power” and “seizing power”, hoping that the SAC will organise an election again and saying that the MUP will participate in polls scheduled to be held in 2023. 
 
Youths from Mon, Karen and Pa-O communities holding anti-dictatorship banner, Mawlamyine, Mon State
Youths from Mon, Karen and Pa-O communities holding anti-dictatorship banner, Mawlamyine, Mon State
 

Responses by Mon people: not to collaborate with the regime

The current political conflict has had huge impact on Mon politics and society. The MUP decision to allow two leaders to join the SAC as party representatives has caused confusion and raised questions over political positions among the Mon people. There have also been different political preferences among Mon people who live inside and outside the country, among monks and among Mon youths. These reflect different perspectives about the current realities of the political conflicts within Myanmar.
 
The Mon people have also suffered criticisms from other non-Mon ethnic groups who live in Mon State. In general, non-Mon political groups criticise the MUP, saying that “the Mon people are collaborating with the generals who are going to institute a dictatorship.”
 
In reply, Mon actors are providing different answers. As they explain, the entire Mon people did not join hands with a military that is seeking to exercise dictatorship. There are many Mon people who are against any type of dictatorship and, among Mon political groups, only the MUP joined the SAC. Not every MUP member supported this move, and other political forces in Mon society, most of the monks, Mon youths, educated and community-based groups, and other Mon activists also did not agree with the MUP decision. In short, Mon organisations and people who are opposed to dictatorship have made it clear that not all the Mon community collaborates with the military SAC.  
 
There is also another argument. Mon people opposing dictatorship point out that the number of Bamar (Burman) people joining the SAC is, in fact, many more than Mon. Thus, if we criticise Bamar people as collaborating with the regime, it will only create hatred between the two peoples. Related to this, some Mon people also believe that the current struggle is not, in reality, an ethnic struggle between Bamar and non-Bamar peoples but a conflict between the two main political forces in “mainland” Myanmar. These two groups, it is asserted, are attempting to gain full national authority. 
 

Different perspectives and Mon political preferences

Currently, the “caretaker government” under the SAC and the civilian NUG are battling each other for state power. Both groups have claimed at their beginning that they will build a federal democracy together with ethnic nationality peoples in the future. In the SAC, two MUP leaders joined as council members and state ministers, and Mon people from other parties, such as the Tatmadaw-established Union Solidarity and Development Party, are also involved. Likewise Mon political groups are collaborating in support of the NUG through such positions as ministers, vice ministers, advisory members, Mon youth and Generation Z as well as People’s Defence Forces. 
 
As this landscape shows, Mon political forces with different perspectives are already taking part on both sides. There are people who say that they can create political benefit through the MUP being represented in the SAC. And, in contrast, there are those who believe that, by joining the NUG, they will be better able to promote their political visions and interests through political dialogue that is in accordance with a system and culture of democracy.
 

Mon prophecy and political position

During the Spring Revolution, poems, predictions and prophecies were widely shared on social media in order to strengthen the struggle against dictatorship. Whether it is true or not, these predictions and prophecies have strengthened political movements, with people sharing these stories in order to encourage one another. There is a culture rooted in Myanmar, where people set their preferences, making future plans based on these predictions and prophecies. This culture is very evident today. 
 
There is a prophecy in the Mon community that is related to Myanmar politics. This comes from a prophecy in the ancient Mon language: 
 

မြာ်ကဵုမြာ်ဇဵု ၐိုပ်မင်ဗဵု အခါရ မြာ်ဍောင် ၐိုပ်တအ် ကပှ်စသောင်င်

Literally, this means Hongsa (a mythical water bird) will watch when the peafowl attack each other. Then, when the peafowl are tired, Hongsa will eat them up. But, in the popular use of this saying, the “peafowl” refers to “Burma” and “Hongsa” refers to the “Mon” people. Thus, according to this prophecy, the lesson is that, when the Bamar people are fighting, the Mon people should not get involved but watch. Only when the Bamar people are weakened, the Mon should advance their own political agendas.

These beliefs still have contemporary relevance. During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when Buddhist novices joined the Saffron Revolution, Mon monks stopped them by using these words. From this prophecy, we can feel that this historic saying does not want the Mon people to suffer when the Bamar people are battling for political power and when there is bloodshed.
 
This kind of prophecy is based upon lessons learned from Mon history. From generation to generation, it is believed, the Bamar people have used non-Bamar peoples and political forces when they want to build up political power. But, after they have built a strong position, there are many examples where the Bamar groups have got along well and cooperated with each other, while suppressing and ill-treating non-Bamar peoples.
 
There are many lessons to be learned by the Mon people helping one side among Bamar political forces but suffering disadvantage from this. Over the past decade, for example, in order to support democratic transition, Mon political forces have had to choose for alliance and support between the Tatmadaw-backed USDP and electoral NLD, both of which are formed and led by Bamar leaders. But, in successive administrative eras under the USDP and then NLD, the authoritarian behaviour of government has restricted the nationality and political movements of the Mon people. Groups that are less powerful are mistreated, and their political demands are neglected in parliament. These are the lessons that Mon people have learned from dominant forces among the Bamar majority in Myanmar politics.  
 
Today, due to these experiences in history, prophecies are again encouraging Mon people to stay away from the current conflict for political power among the Bamar population. The subject is being talked about much more during this troubled time. 
 

Mon history and political position

The Mon people have a strong history, dating back many centuries to promote nationalism, to express culture, to establish political ideas and to develop ethnic policies. In the early 12th century, the Mon people mostly lived under the Bagan dynasty in the lands that have become modern Myanmar. When, however, the power of Bagan dynasty collapsed due to attack by the Mongol army, the Mon people tried to restore their own monarchy. That is when the Ma Gadu dynasty appeared. His story continues to live on and has resonance in Mon communities today.
 
Ma Gadu, who was a village leader in the Ta Kaw Wun area near Thaton, let his sister marry his enemy the Mottama mayor, Ah Lane Mar, to form an alliance. He then invited Ah Lane Mar and arranged a dinner party near a riverbank to assassinate him. There were three words of warning that Ma Gadu ordered his warriors to follow at the dinner table: “(1) “MaZa” – warriors to stop drinking; (2) “Mone Zone” – warriors to enjoy food and rice until full; and (3) “MapZap” – warriors to take out their swords and spears, killing Ah Lane Mar’s warriors. With these three words, he was able to kill Ah Lane Mar. Subsequently, King Ma Gadu became ruler of Mottama, taking over the territory of Hanthawaddy and creating a famous Mon Kingdom. 
 
The history of King Ma Gadu is another story that encourages the political mind of the Mon people: an example of how they were able to rebuild their kingdom when the Bamar people from Bagan were disunited. The lesson is that, even if they have to make an alliance with the enemy, it could be in the Mon interest to do so as a stratagem. Historically, although the two ethnic groups – the Bamar and Mon – built up their kingdoms in competition in military and political affairs, the Mon people do not have their own kingdom today. Rather, they believe that they are living under the rule of the Bamar people. Therefore many Mon people still aim to “create their own self-determination and self-independence”, building an independent country and deciding their own political destiny one day. 
 

Promoting the interest of the Mon people

MUP members have argued that the two party representatives were allowed to join the SAC for the political benefit of the Mon people and to be directly present in any political dialogue with the regime. In contrast, Mon political forces that support the NUG as a pro-democracy movement are joining them to promote policies for democratic change and the establishment of a federal union. We can assume that both want to end the existence of military dictatorship. 
 
In the meantime, there are also social and political actors who do not support either side but urge the Mon people to wait for the moment when the two dominant groups among the Bamar majority become weakened. Then they should take the opportunity to develop an action plan to achieve the political vision and goals of the Mon people. Thus, during the current period of political conflict, the Mon people are urging each other to be cautious about joining political movements. The need, it is argued, is to create a new political landscape for the Mon people that accords with their own wishes and preferences. 
 

The Mon people: the continuing fight against dictatorship

Since the founder of the third Myanmar Empire, Aung Zeya (also known as King Alaungpaya) invaded the Mon kingdom of Hanthawaddy in 1757, the Mon people have been continuing a long-running revolution until the present day. The Mon people have always fought for their liberation as much as possible. 
 
The Mon people joined in the struggle against the British annexation during the colonial era and also rebelled against the Japanese during the Second World War. And they have been involved, generation after generation, in political movements against dictatorship after independence. So much blood has been shed. Because of these wars, the country has been destroyed and the people have lost the opportunity to create their own destiny. But the struggle against military rule still continues, and the Mon people are still on the path of revolution against dictatorship.
 
In conclusion, even when the uprising against dictatorship is over and those struggling for democracy win, the Mon people will continue fighting against dictators who might appear in the future, and they will never stop the revolutionary movement to advance and achieve the just right of self-determination.
 
Min Naing Soon is the pseudonym for an activist engaged in Mon national, cultural and political affairs. Earlier this year, he took part in non-violent protests against military rule.