PAUNG TOWNSHIP, Mon State—Thousands of ethnic Mon from southeastern Burma celebrated the 66th Mon National Day on Tuesday with traditional Mon ceremonies, entertainment and military-style marches. At the event, Mon leaders again called on the government to recognize their rights and political demands.
In Paung Township, thousands of local Mon and dozens of Mon from neighboring Thailand dressed in the traditional ethnic style, wearing white shirts and red sarongs, while they waved Mon flags.
About 500 hundred teenagers performed military-style marches through the jam-packed streets of Paung Township, while musicians played traditional Mon songs.
During the celebrations, Mon political leaders urged Burma’s central government to follow through on its promise to negotiate a political settlement with the Mon.
“We need to fight for our freedom. There is civil war in Burma because there are no equal rights in the country,” said Nai Tin Aung, chairman of the Mon Democracy Party.
Like many other minorities in Burma, the Mon want political autonomy within a federal structure and amendments to the 2008 Constitution so that it better protects their rights.
Mon State has been fairly peaceful since the mid 1990s and confrontations between Mon armed groups and the government have been rare. The two sides held further ceasefire talks in February 2012 in order to work out a ceasefire agreement.
Nai Htaw Mon, the chairman of the New Mon State Party (NMSP), said however, that the government has shown little commitment to resolving the sides’ differences during the past year. The NMSP are the political wing of the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), an armed rebel group.
“The government delays scheduling a political dialogue by offering local development projects [instead],” he said. “They should not delay any further if they want to have peace and development in the country.”
The Mon are one of Burma’s major ethnic groups and their national day commemorates the establishment of the first Mon kingdom, Hongsawadee, in 573 AD.
The group has kept their national day alive for more than 60 years, despite efforts by the Burmese authorities to discourage overt displays of Mon nationalism because of fears it could fuel anti-regime sentiment.
In recent years, the government has relaxed its attitude towards Mon ethnic holidays and the events are now celebrated openly across Mon State, both in government and Mon rebel-controlled areas.
In a sign of the government’s new tolerance, Mon State Parliament President Kyin Phay attended Mon National Day on Tuesday. “To have peace is important. Without this, we cannot have development in our country,” he said, reading from a statement by the state’s chief minister Ohn Myint.
Like many other state parliaments in Burma, the Mon State legislature is under control of the central government in Naypyidaw.
The government’s new tolerance appeared to have done little however, to diminish Mon demands for greater autonomy. Some participants in the events in Paung Township openly called on the Burmese government to “give back” Mon State.
“Mon State is our heritage and our forefathers’ legacy. We are not taking it from the Burmese … We are asking them to give back our legacy,” Nai Tan Rong, a Mon from Thailand, told the crowd, who responded with rapturous applause.
Ven. Palita, a senior Buddhist monk and a former Mon political prisoner, suggested that during the next Mon National Day organizers should seek the boundaries of the government’s tolerance by marching armed MNLA units through the streets. “I would be happy to see our Mon soldiers presented here for marching. Why don’t they dare to do it?” he said.
Three Mon kingdoms used to rule much of Lower Burma between the 9th and the middle of the 18th century, until the Burmese King Alaungpaya captured the former Mon royal capital Pegu. The region gradually came under full Burmese control and the Mon became a minor ethnic group within the country with little political influence.