Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Mon locals have staged protests against the naming of the Salween Bridge [Chaungzon] as Gen Aung San Bridge—which we’ll discuss this week. Former Chaungzon Township lawmaker of All Mon Region Democracy Party and current patron of Rangoon Division’s Mon Language and Literature Committee Nai Hla Maung and Mon ethnic social and political activist Nai Ko Thu will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese reporter Kyaw Kha.
Nai Hla Maung, you were the Chaungzon Township lawmaker under the previous government. And you proposed building that bridge. Mon locals have staged protests against changing the name of the bridge to Gen Aung San Bridge. There were more than 3,000 protestors at the initial protest and more than 30,000 locals at the second protest. What do you think about this?
Nai Hla Maung: [The Mon State government] sent a letter stating that the name of the bridge was to be changed from Salween Bridge [Chaungzon] to Gen Aung San Bridge. This goes against the wishes of local people and so they took to the streets.
As the bridge is in Mon State, locals wanted the bridge to be given a name that had a trace of Mon ethnic identity, such as Yamanya [Mon State in Mon language], or the name of a prominent Mon king or warrior from the past. They staged protests because they wanted the bridge to be named something like that instead of Gen Aung San, but not because they do not admire Gen Aung San. They hold him in esteem.
While some people [lawmakers] dare not propose honoring Gen Aung San in the time of Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] government, I boldly referred to him as father of independence Gen Aung San in Parliament. The National League for Democracy (NLD) chairperson even sent someone to thank me. What I mean is that like me, other people from our state also respect and honor Gen Aung San.
KK: The case was brought to Parliament and voting was held to reach a decision. What do you have to say about it, Ko Nai Ko Thu?
Nai Ko Thu: We should analyze from a legal point of view if this should be brought before Parliament and if it was the right procedure to do so in the first place. There is a Constitutional Tribunal and we should try to put forward the case there. The tribunal should rule on whether it is the right or wrong procedure and explain the reasons. If locals are satisfied with the explanation, it is done. If they are not satisfied, they may submit a writ to the president. People and other ethnic groups will assess whether their action [submitting the proposal to the Parliament] was right.
KK: Nai Hla Maung, some say there is political instigation behind the naming of the bridge. What do you think?
NHM: I do not think Mon people in my region have responded because of political causes. They are easygoing people. Their wish regarding the name of the bridge—as it is in their region—is that they wanted to resurrect their ethnic identity, which is fading. I assume that their response is not related to politics.
KK: Besides changing the 2008 Constitution, the government has talked about national reconciliation as its slogan since it came to power. Do you think that the name could impact upon national reconciliation?
NHM: Yes, I think it has a direct impact on national reconciliation. To achieve national reconciliation, equality must be given to ethnic groups. When it comes to national reconciliation and building federal democracy, ethnic rights must be the top priority.
Changing the name of the bridge is in direct opposition to the wishes of the people. That they oppose the wishes of the people will negatively impact national reconciliation. Then, there will be many hindrances toward building national reconciliation and federal democracy. Changing the name could have an enormous impact on the country.
KK: According to my experience, people had great interest in the 2015 general election. There were ethnic people who ignored local ethnic parties and voted for the NLD as they wanted change and believed that the NLD would be able to bring about those changes. You lost in the 2015 election. Do you think you lost because of what I have mentioned?
NHM: Yes. I contested a seat in the 2015 election. There were many people who voted for me in the 2010 general election. They suggested to me that they would like to vote for the NLD in 2015 because they believed that if they voted for the NLD, it would be able to form a government and amend the 2008 Constitution. I tried to comply with the wishes of the audience [voters]. I said I would not solicit their votes and they were free to do as they wished. I did not know in advance if the NLD could amend the 2008 Constitution or not. But people have seen it now.
KK: The by-election will be held on April 1, and Mon parties, the USDP and the NLD will contest in Chaungzon Township, where the bridge is. Do you think what the NLD has done regarding the bridge could have consequences there?
NHM: There may be consequences. My opinion is that the local government should name bridges. But it was inflated, submitted to Parliament and voted on. It was a time-wasting dramatization. To give a simile, debating the name of a bridge in Parliament is—forgive me if my example is rude—like girding up one’s loins to catch a snail. They have exaggerated trivial matters. I view it as the government bullying the people.
KK: There was controversy on social media over the bridge case. Some blame [Mon people] for not recognizing Gen Aung San. They pointed out that there are streets in Rangoon that are named [after Mon warriors and monarchs such as] Banya Dala, Shin Saw Pu, Thamin Barang and so on and that the Bamars had not opposed those names; and that they heartily welcomed President U Htin Kyaw, who is ethnic Mon. So they questioned why the Mon people were opposing the bridge name. The bridge has led to disagreements between people, especially between Bamars and Mon people. Isn’t this a cause for concern? What do you think, Ko Nai Ko Thu?
NKT: Yes, it is a real cause for concern. Those who have made those points do not understand history at all. They only know the history that they learned in school textbooks. They do not know that Rangoon was once the Mon city of Dagon. They do not know Shwedagon was Kyaikdagon. They do not understand why these have changed, and they do not know they were once the places of Mon people.
Their knowledge is just that they have lived here since they were born, and they take it for granted that it is their place. They think that because they do not complain about Mon names in their places, we should not complain.
If they think that way, we would say that it was not very long ago that we were given Mon State, which was formed with 10 townships. The 41st anniversary of Mon State Day was celebrated very recently. We only got 10 townships, but there are many Mon villages that were included in Tenasserim Division and Karen State. That is why Mon people are not very keen on celebrating Mon National Day. The annual celebrations bear witness to it. They feel that their place—their empire—was shrunk, that their people were moved outside [Mon State] and that they were limited to only 10 townships.
There are gardens in Mon State that have the statue of Gen Aung San. But how many gardens are there that have statues of Mon leaders and kings? We had to spend a lot of energy to have a statue of a ruddy shelduck, which is the symbol of Mon people.
There are research books on Mon history. But go and see how many of those books are written in Mon language. The Mon State parliament has only started to use Mon language recently. This is just a comparison, not meant to instigate hatred between the two sides.
We ethnic people tolerate as much as we can. We do not want to argue with each other, but want to move forward to a genuine federal Union hand in hand. We are working hard for it cooperatively. I think all sides should have positive views and make positive moves. If the two sides keep on exchanging hate speech, it will not have a positive impact or deliver good results.
KK: I’ve been to many ethnic regions. I visited ethnic museums and found that the structures of the museums, including regalia and tablets, were Burmanized. What about taking steps to avoid the distortion of ethnic identities in ethnic museums? How do you think that should be solved?
NHM: Of course the cultural heritage of ethnic groups should be kept in ethnic regions. I believe that the heritage of our ethnic Mon people is the primary heritage of the entire country. So, it is critically important that such heritage does not vanish, and is kept for remembrance in Mon State. If something intended to kill off that cultural heritage, it should be opposed resolutely.
NKT: I think the government should try to understand the real situation first. We do not know what they have heard, learned and seen. But anyway, they should consider the wishes of ethnic groups. They should pay heed to the wishes of not only Mon people, but also other ethnic groups. They need to take those things into consideration and find the best solution possible. I believe that the government is not that naïve. They might have gotten incorrect information and made the wrong decision as a result. They need to fix it in time.
KK: Ko Nai Ko Thu and U Nai Hla Maung, thank you for your contributions.