[Mon and Ethnic Nationality Resistance Struggles and Lessons for Peace Negotiations Today] Nai Hong Sar
[Vice Chairman, New Mon State Party
Vice Chair (1), United Nationalities Federal Council
Team Leader, Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team]
16 October 2014
[Throughout Burma’s history, the Mon and other ethnic nationalities have struggled for recognition and their fundamental rights of equality and self-determination against armed oppression. The current peace process takes into account the lessons learned from the ethnic nationalities’ experiences of the wars fought under successive Burman governments and military regimes and the repeated peace processes that have failed for lack of meaningful political dialogue or recognition of ethnic peoples’ rights. While the military leaders continue to seek to protect their positions of power enshrined in their 2008 constitution, the ethnic nationalities are focused on ensuring that the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) includes the appropriate guarantees to prevent future outbreaks of fighting and to lead to the political dialogue. We believe this opportunity can lead to peace if the parties learn from history and do not repeat the mistakes of the past.]
Ethnic Unity to Achieve Independence
Together, the ethnic nationalities’ ultimate goals are for this country to be a peaceful, democratic, and genuine federal union. Since the independence struggle in the reign of the Anti- Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), we have all worked together. General Aung San demanded that the ethnic leaders unite to achieve independence together. We were united to strive for equality and ethnic rights along with independence. General Aung San assured us that we would not be controlled by anyone, promising equal rights and self-determination for the ethnic peoples.
When the people struggled for independence for the whole country, the British colonialists were not ready to give independence to the plains and frontier areas together. The British wanted to grant independence separately, giving the plains independence first. General Aung San sought independence for all of Burma, and the people united together. He went to the ethnic nationalities to forge the Panglong Agreement and achieve full independence. The ethnic nationality leaders of the Chin, Kachin, and Shan peoples agreed to join with the rest of the country and seek independence as a single entity. At that time, the Karenni were independent and were only present as observers. General Aung San promised that the ethnic nationalities would not be subject to any colonialism—British or Burman—that there would be national equality, and that the ethnic nationalities would continue to administer their own territories. This was promised in the Panglong Agreement and is how the British government gave independence together to the plains and frontiers.
1947 Constitution and Failed Promises to the Ethnic Nationalities
However, General Aung San and his colleagues were unfortunately assassinated. U Nu then became the leader of the AFPFL and the Prime Minister. Under the 1947 constitution, only the
Shan and Kachin received their own administrative states. The Chin were placed under a regional administration. Revenue and manpower shortages were given as the reason why the constitution was drafted with the divided administration of Burma Proper and the Frontier Areas. The 1947 constitution appears to create a union system of government, but analysis shows that it is actually a unitary system. U Chan Htun, drafter of the 1947 constitution remarked, “Our country though in theory federal, is in practice unitary”. Chapter X of the 1947 constitution clearly gave the Shan and Karenni States the right to secede from the union. Some ethnic leaders who were discontent with the 1947 constitution say they were patient, despite disliking the constitution.
At that time, only the Shan, Kachin, and Karenni had been granted ethnic states. The rest of the ethnic nationalities (e.g., Mon and Rakhine) did not achieve their own administrative status. Since then, the ethnic nationalities, such as the Mon, Karen, and Rakhine, fought for their rights against the AFPFL reign.
The Mon Movement for Recognition and Equality
As far as I know, the Mon leaders demanded recognition from within the AFPFL, and the AFPFL leaders responded that the Mon and Burman were the same and that it would be unnecessary for the Mon to have a separate identity or rights. The Mon leaders believed that the Mon would not be recognized as a different ethnic national identity. The Mon leaders at that time consulted among themselves and discussed with the Karen and Karenni, who had achieved more for their own rights by then. The Mon leaders talked with Karen leaders, such as Saw Baw U Gyi, who had already found their way, since they already had Karen units in the military under the British and had revolted. The Mon found a way to revolt against the government for their rights.
At that time, the Mon lacked any arms for their struggle. They mobilized the youth and organized campaigns in Mawlamyine, the Mon capital, and demanded a state for the Mon and rights for the ethnic nationalities. After the Mon struggle began, the Burman leaders started to consider how to respond to the Mon movement. The Burman leaders met and some of them agreed to give the Mon ethnic rights and state-level status, but others disagreed because 200 years earlier the Burman leader U Aung Zaya (aka A Laung Baya) had fought the Mon as well as the Thai, conquering the Mon kingdom and causing many Mon to flee to Thailand. In 1757, the Burman armies committed genocide against the Mon people. This was part of the third of the three significant historical movements of the Mon independence struggle, following the reigns of Anawrahta in 1057 and Ta Pin Shwe Thi in the 16th Century.
In the meetings of the Burman leaders, some were willing to give the Mon their own state and others disagreed, because the Mon were a minority. There was a prominent Burmese leader, Thakhin Kodaw Hmaing, who noted that the Mon never willingly lived under anyone. The Mon had fought against the Burmans, when they won they rebuilt their kingdom, so the Burman leaders believed that if the Mon were granted distinct status, then they would build a separate country again.
The Mon movement was becoming revitalized. The Mon leaders asked the Burman leaders for recognized status and the territory of Rangoon. The Burman leaders disagreed over how to respond and decided to control and suppress the Mon. The Mon leaders were targeted and quietly assassinated.
To preserve the Mon identity, the Mon leaders learned about armed resistance. The ethnic nationality leaders brainstormed and planned for their movement. On 19 August 1948, two Mon leaders, Nai Pan Tha and Bo Thein entered the Zathapyin Village. Within three days they occupied the village tract and seized over 250 weapons from the police stations and village guards. This revived the Mon movement.
At that time, the Mon and Karen fought against the government and occupied Mawlamyine, Thaton, and Hpa-an. After the occupation of those three key areas, the Karen and Mon jointly administered them. After 1948, Saw Ba U Gyi, the leading Karen revolutionary, who also had served as a minister in the government, came to the Mon area to discuss the Mon and Karen movements. Although there had been fighting, the Karen revolution had not yet officially begun. After talking with Saw Ba U Gyi, the Mon leaders agreed to give Mawlamyine back to the government. However, the Mon troops did not completely retreat from their positions. The Mon jointly administered Mawlamyine with the government. Saw Ba U Gyi persuaded the Mon leaders that the Mon and Karen states would be granted if they properly and legally demanded them, and the Mon leaders listened to his advice.
The Mon and Karen revolutionary forces had occupied large areas and also seized some banks. After accepting Saw Ba U Gyi’s advice, they returned the bank notes as well as Mawlamyine, but the Mon and Karen revolutionary forces remained in control of Thaton and Hpa-an to see how sincere the government would be in granting them ethnic states. Later, the revolutionary forces could not remain there and they moved to the jungle.
While they were striving for their rights, the movement grew and became tougher. The government declared the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) an illegal association on 31 January 1949. The following day, 1 February 1949, the government declared the Mon National Defense Organization (MNDO) to also be an illegal association.
The Karen fighting forces launched the war at Insein, where the fighting lasted 101 days. Finally, the Karen revolutionary forces retreated. The Mon revolutionary forces also joined the fighting at Insein; 150-armed Mon troops were deployed in that battle.
At that time, the Mon movement was growing. The government forces burned down over 108 Mon villages. The government used force to suppress the Mon ethnic leaders. It cut their funds and food supplies and cracked down on the 108 villages.
First Failed Peace Plans and 1962 Military Coup D’état
The AFPFL had split into two factions—“clean” and “stable”. U Nu started to mobilize and persuade the ethnic leaders to come into the legal fold and achieve their rights through the democratic system. The Mon leaders agreed to join the legal fold. In 1958, the leaders struggling under the name of the Mon People’s Front disarmed and joined the legal fold at the same time as the Pa-O National Liberation Organization led by U Hla Pe and the Rakhine People’s Liberation Party led by U Sein Da.
When the government offered democratic rights, and the ethnic nationality leaders believed those rights would be achievable, the ethnic movements discarded all their weapons and joined the legal fold hoping for peace and their rights. Under the government’s offer to exchange arms for democratic rights the ethnic nationality leaders formed political parties, but the elections were not free and fair and failed to meet their expectations. There was a significant movement in 1961-62 when they joined together to demand a federal constitution as well as Rakhine and Mon states. The Karen were the strongest revolutionary movement, so they achieved their state the earliest, in 1951. After the Mon and Rakhine were transformed into political parties and struggled within the system, they were suppressed again. Finally, the other faction of the AFPFL led by Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein joined together with General Ne Win to seize power in the coup d’état of March 1962.
After the 1962 military coup, General Ne Win offered peace deals with the different revolutionary forces. Almost all the forces joined for the peace talks. General Ne Win’s means for peace was driven by the desire to control all the forces so the peace deal was not successful. Following the collapse of the negotiations, General Ne Win declared that the country would follow the socialist system and enforced his rule with military might.
From 1969 to 1974, General Ne Win used his forces to tighten operations on the Bago and Delta regions, using the Four Cuts strategy to target the populations who supported the revolutionary movements. Most of the revolutionary forces moved to the border areas, but none disappeared. During General Ne Win’s reign, the war effort was targeted at the ethnic populations, which is why the smaller groups and minorities all took arms and revolted against the government forces. After General Ne Win took power in the military coup, the Palaung, Wa, Lahu, Naga, Chin, Kachin, and Shan all joined the armed movement. The civil war widened, and the country became poorer.
Post-1988 Ceasefires and Renewed Conflict Without Political Dialogue
Under the dictatorship, human rights violations were widespread and systematic, including the violent suppression of the1988 uprising. Even though the people’s uprising occurred in 1988, the dictatorship again seized power as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and later the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Confrontation increased between the public and the military regime, so the regime began to lean towards mobilizing the ethnic movements.
Since the beginning of 1989, there were calls for peace. The peace negotiations brought many organizations to agree to ceasefire agreements through 1995. In late 1995 and early 1996 the ceasefire groups began to disarm. These included the Muang Tai Army led by Hkun Sa and Arakan Communist Party.
During the reign of the SLORC and SPDC, the regimes had a policy to solve political problems by political means. However, they refused to start political dialogue talks, because they said they were not the civilian government, and when the people’s government emerged it would deal with the political dialogue.
The military regimes asked the ceasefire groups to work for development and trust building, using delay tactics and forcefully disarming some groups. There are significant examples of this from 2005: the Palaung State Liberation Organization (PSLO) was disarmed completely by force and disappeared, and the Shan State Nationalities Army was disarmed and half, led by Colonel Sai Yee, joined the Restoration Council of Shan State. In 2008, Ta Kalei’s group (Red Pa-O), which had joined the Shan Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization (SNPLO), was also forcibly disarmed.
The ethnic revolutionary forces joined the government’s programs and entered into the National Convention, but their demands were never achieved. Nothing happened. After the National Convention finished, the regime held the illegitimate ratification for the military-drafted 2008 constitution that protected the military’s role throughout the structure of the state. Under this constitution, they held the 2010 elections to elect into power the military’s civilian proxy party, the USDP. There was then a civilian government. They had to follow through on their promise to hold the political dialogue, but they did not follow their commitment. Instead, they demanded that the ethnic forces transform into a Border Guard Force (BGF) under control of the Burmese armed forces. That is what led to another war. Some ethnic forces transformed into BGFs or militia, and some did not. That is why some of them gathered to fight again. Some have been destroyed under the government’s cunning tactics.
The Way Forward for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and Peace Process
After President Thein Sein was sworn in as president, peace negotiations were offered again. Everyone saw the situation and the reality. The ethnic revolutionary movements joined to work with his offer. The greatest sufferers from the wars are the ethnic people and forces in the ethnic areas. That is why the ethnic revolutionary forces truly hope for peace through a deal based on Thein Sein’s offer.
We already have experience and have learned lessons from the past fighting and failed attempts at peace. We are now dealing with President Thein Sein and need guarantees for the future.
The government and some of the international community claim that the delays in the negotiations are due to the demands of the ethnic nationalities. This incorrect perception spreads because they do not have the experience to see the lessons provided by history.
At the current stage, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) mainly focuses on not resuming the war. We can already easily see that in Shan State some of the groups have been attacked by the Burmese army over 100 times after their recent ceasefire agreements. This has happened because they lack assurances and guarantees at this stage. Likewise, fighting is recurring with the Mon and Karen. It is happening again because of the lack of assurances and guarantees in the ceasefire agreements. That is why we are seeking more assurances and guarantees in the NCA to prevent more fighting in the future. This is the reason why in the negotiations we have been mainly focused on issues such as joint monitoring and the code of conduct—so that the fighting will not resume in the future and that the peace we build will be sustainable.
We do not like that the Burmese military has made an agreement with one group and is fighting another. All must be treated equally. We are aware of the government tactics. The government has used a divide-and-conquer policy in the past, so we are cautious not to have this repeat again.
Another important point is that after the ceasefire there must be the guarantee for political dialogue. When it is time for political dialogue, there must be a joint dialogue committee comprised of both sides, and the dialogue must be based on the fundamental principles of national equality, democracy, and a genuine federal union. We emphasize that all ethnic groups must be involved in the process under the principles of equal status and justice.
In our experience during the negotiations, we have had easier access and dealings with the executive branch and parliamentary representatives, while the military representatives are less easy to work with. The present military leaders are the successors to General Ne Win, so they have been brainwashed by the Ne Win era. The old mindset remains and it is very difficult for them to change. According to their mindset, they would like to build this country as the fourth Burman empire. Their deeper instinct is a deeply rooted Burman chauvinism. Their main goal is to protect the 2008 constitution and the special privileges it grants the military. Protecting the 2008 constitution means protecting the military’s interests.
Now the NCA is delayed and the uncertainty for the political dialogue is because of the military’s wishes and actions. They do not want federalism. They do not want equality and self- determination for the ethnic peoples.
All the ethnic revolutionary organizations seek to resolve our political problems through political means. We will never leave the union if we can build a genuine federal union based on equality and self-determination. We now seek the necessary guarantees in the NCA that this agreement will lead to meaningful political dialogue and avoid the return to war as in the past.
In building peace, we are quite humble, honest, and simple. We are in the position of trying to not drown in the bitter past experiences again. So far, I believe that my discussions could give a picture of how we have been struggling and our feelings reflect that reality. This has been a discussion of the difficulty in the current negotiations and why there is delay in the NCA. I think you may then see the rest of the issues clearly.