Mon Leader Says Equality Key to Peace in Burma

By Lawi Weng 30 September 2013

MOULMEIN — Burma’s ethnic minorities will not attempt to secede from the union if granted equal rights, according to the ethnic Mon pro-democracy leader Min Ko Naing, who spoke during a landmark Mon peace conference over the weekend.

Min Ko Naing, who was born in Mudon Township, Mon State, made the assertion at the Mon National Conference on Saturday. Hundreds of ethnic Mon from the southern part of Burma were in attendance for the three-day conference in the state capital Moulmein, marking the first time that the government has allowed ethnic Mon activists to host a gathering to discuss the ethnic minority’s political aspirations.

“They [the Burmese government] should consider why our ethnic people want to split from the country. They should ask themselves why the people do not want unity,” said Min Ko Naing, who is also a leading member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.

For more than six decades, the Burmese military has waged war against armed rebel factions of the country’s ethnic minority groups. There were, at times, more than 50 non-state armed groups operating in the country’s border areas. Allegations of widespread human rights abuses by both government troops and armed rebels have accompanied the fighting.

“Look at Asean or the European Union. Many countries wanted to be members of them because they believed that by joining, they would benefit from it,” said Min Ko Naing. “Similarly, for our ethnic people, no one would want to secede from a federal union if they saw benefit. … All ethnic people would stay with the Union government if they could get equal rights.”

More than 300 ethnic Mon leaders attended the conference, where discussion focused on how to achieve permanent peace and stability in the region, and accelerate development in Mon State.

Two Mon political parties and one armed group, the New Mon State Party (NMSP), sent representatives and were joined by Mon civil society groups. Min Ko Naing and Aung Min, the government’s chief peace negotiator, were in attendance for the first day of the conference.

Senior Mon Buddhist monks and even some Mon living in exile in the United States, Australia and other countries were also present, including a sizeable contingent of ethnic Mon living in Thailand, which shares a small stretch of border with southeastern Mon State.

“This is an historical event for our Mon because this is the first time all our Mon could gather in one place officially to discuss our political plans,” said Nai Htaw Mon, who is chairman of the NMSP and was one of the conference’s speakers.

Political reforms enacted by President Thein Sein over the last 18 months have rejuvenated peace talks with many ethnic armed groups. Amending or completely redrafting the 2008 Constitution is also being discussed, with many of the nation’s ethnic minority groups pushing for any revision to include greater regional autonomy within a federal state.

The NMSP signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in February 2012, but there remain political differences that the party has repeatedly asked the government to address.

“There have been political reforms by the government, but there is also ongoing fighting,” said Nai Htaw Mon.

Two soldiers from the NMSP were killed and two others were detained in July after government troops attacked them in Tavoy, an area under NMSP control.

“It was sad as our two soldiers were killed and two more have been detained even though they [the government] say they are undertaking political reforms,” said Nai Htaw Mon.

Aung Min, who is also a President’s Office minister, said at the conference that Burma needed peace in order to achieve stable development.

Fourteen ethnic armed groups have signed ceasefires toward this end, according to Aung Min. Peace talks between the government and Kachin and Paluang ethnic armed groups are ongoing, with neither having yet committed to a ceasefire.

“My work in the peace process is just one part,” Aung Min said. “A political dialogue is necessary to have a permanent peace.”

Despite more than two years of peace negotiations between the government and ethnic armed groups, fighting has flared up from time to time, most notably a government offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) that began late last year and carried on into early 2013.

“We need to have a nationwide political dialogue. Before we do this, we need to have a nationwide ceasefire agreement,” Aung Min said. “The government will invite 16 ethnic armed groups to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement.”

Aung Min said there would be no discrimination against any of Burma’s ethnic armed groups at the ceasefire signing, which is planned for October.

Min Ko Naing said the peace process was being hindered by a lack of transparency and insufficient representation of civilians at the negotiating table.

“If there is no transparency, peace talks will not achieve anything. Most peace talks have not been fruitful because they have not brought in the voices of civilians,” he said.

The case of the Myitsone dam in Kachin State could serve as a template for civilian involvement in the peace process, Min Ko Naing suggested.

“We can say we had success with our [Myitsone] movement,” he said, referring to protests by local communities that ultimately led Thein Sein to suspend construction of the dam, which would have flooded large tracts of land at the confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers.

“Similarly, if a lot of civilians get involved in this peace process, we will have success.”