RANGOON — An 11th hour decision by the outgoing Burmese government to grant citizenship to tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese living in northern Shan State’s Tarmoenye sub-township has raised eyebrows, with some questioning whether the move was politically motivated.
A statement from Burma’s Immigration Department, dated March 11 but only posted online this week, announced that immigration authorities had granted full citizenship to members of the “Mong Wong” ethnic Chinese group in Tarmoenye, part of Kutkai Township, enabling them to vote and enjoy other rights previously withheld.
Why and how these people were afforded full citizenship are questions that will no doubt be of interest to an untold number of ethnic Chinese across Burma who have been afforded no such privilege and remain holders of second-tier citizenship or none at all. Others including Palaung, one of the region’s predominant ethnic groups, say the move by the outgoing administration was a cynical attempt to secure future votes for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), of which President Thein Sein is chairman.
Under Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, the group will be re-categorized as “Mong Wong Burman” and granted the pink-colored ID cards that confer full citizenship, after previously being identified as “Mong Wong Chinese” on temporary identity documents commonly known as white cards.
Ruled by the military for five decades, Burma through the years has denied full citizenship to those of Chinese ancestry and other ethnic or religious groups, including Hindus and Muslims, who were born in, and in many cases have never left, the country.
But the move to enfranchise what the Immigration Department statement said amounted to some 60,000 people in Tarmoenye is being called into question by some.
“There is nothing about them related to our ethnicity. They are Chinese, how did they become ethnic Burman?” said Aik Moon, a Ta’ang National Party state lawmaker from Tarmoenye.
“They have a different way of living, and some even only speak Chinese. How can they be a Burmese ethnicity? But we do not have power to do anything,” he added.
Myint Kyaing, who is head of the Immigration Department, told the 7Day daily newspaper that the president had the right, as enshrined in the 1982 Citizenship Law, to grant citizenship in cases deemed beneficial to the country.
Sai Maung Tin, a former Upper House lawmaker representing northern Shan State for the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), said the government had erred in not consulting other ethnic groups in the area before deciding to offer citizenship to the Mong Wong.
“They used to stay under our Shan saopha,” he said, referring to Shan chieftains of the past, who ruled over fiefdoms in Burma’s east and northeast. “They were Chinese, but one type of ethnic [presence] within our Shan [fiefdom]. For me, I feel that they should have the right to citizenship. However, it would have been better for the government to talk to our Shan before making this decision.”
“The government has made this case more controversial now,” Sai Maung Tin added.
Thein Sein’s government, which will leave office at the end of this month, is not the first to show favor toward the Mong Wong. According to the Immigration Department statement, “the heads of State of successive periods recognized the cooperation of [Mong Wong] Bamar ethnic for national security,” and in 1998 former junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe ordered that the group be recognized as a subgroup under the ethnic Burman majority.
Two “widescale” referendums were held later that year in which the new categorization was “heartily accepted,” the statement claims.
It goes on to state that through an apparent combination of administrative mismanagement and poor communication, the group was never properly granted full citizenship, resulting in only 620 out of “some 60,000 eligible Tar Moe Nye region [Mong Wong] Bamar voters having suffrage in the 2015 election.”
It was that vote in Kutkai Township that saw USDP lawmaker Myint Lwin re-elected to the Shan State legislature. Also known as Wang Guoda, Myint Lwin is said to have had close ties to Than Shwe and former spy chief Gen. Khin Nyunt dating back to the 1980s, when he reportedly helped the junta in its fight against the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) along the Sino-Burmese border.
To this day, Myint Lwin commands a Mong Wong militia known as Mung Nye or Ta Moe Nye, and reportedly has significant business interests in Shan State.
“He often asked General Than Shwe to recognize his Chinese people for Burmese citizenship. He asked my father-in-law for advice on how to write letters to be sent to General Than Shwe [requesting citizenship],” said Aik Moon, who explained that his father-in-low used to work at a company owned by Myint Lwin.
Over the years, Mong Wong Chinese have proven a reliable ally to the central government in an unstable region—northern Shan State but extending also to Kachin State and the Kokang Special Region—beset by ethnic conflict, guns and drugs.
Myint Lwin’s pro-government militia is estimated to be about 100-men strong.
Mai Aike Kyaw, a spokesman for the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), said offering full citizenship could be interpreted as an attempt to ensure allegiance in the volatile region.
“There are different ethnic groups active in the region. Our armed group [TNLA] is active in the area. They [the Burma Army] have to work with militias on the ground. They have army bases in Tarmoenye and Kutkai through working together with those militia,” said Mai Aike Kyaw, whose TNLA is involved in ongoing conflict with the Burma Army.