RANGOON — The collective fate of tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese living in Burma’s Shan State was taken up by the Union Parliament on Wednesday, opening another chapter in the convoluted controversy over what it means to be “Burmese.”
Approximately 60,000 people from the Mong Wong group, who are believed to have moved to northern Shan State from southern China’s Yunnan province some two centuries ago, were granted Burmese citizenship in an 11th-hour move by the then-outgoing Thein Sein government in March.
The former government ordered immigration officials to begin issuing IDs to the Mong Wong in Shan State’s Tarmoenye, part of Kutkai Township, as a reward for their militia’s support of Burma Army operations against other non-state armed organizations, said Minister of Labor, Immigration and Population Thein Swe in Parliament on Wednesday.
“[Mong Wong] militias actively cooperated with the Burma Army, also known as Tatmadaw, to fight armed insurgents,” said Thein Swe, a former member of the previously ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), who was purged from its ranks last month after accepting the cabinet post offered by the National League for Democracy (NLD).
A Mong Wong by Any Other Name
Much of this week’s parliamentary wrangling centered around nomenclature—a knotty issue for the Mong Wong, who have been given eight different names, according to the minister, since they were first issued ID cards in 1982.
“Having so many different names has complicated this issue. This is yet another reason the government granted them citizenship: It was easier to classify the whole group as ‘Mong Wong-Bamar,’” said Thein Swe.
“The [Mong Wong] proposed this terminology to the government, who agreed to use it,” Thein Swe continued. “The move was not meant to recognize them as one distinct ethnicity.”
The minister stated that ethnicity changes could only be made in accordance with the Constitution, and that his ministry did not have the authority to make a decision on the issue unilaterally.
On Burmese ID cards, children with parents from different ethnic groups have to list both parents’ ethnicities.
“The current term makes it seem that the Mong Wong, whose ethnicity is listed [under the previous government’s directive] as Mong Wong-Bamar, are all descended from people of Burmese ethnicity,” said Sai Thant Zin, a lawmaker representing Hsipaw Township from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) party in the Lower House. “Our government should solve this problem.”
Thein Swe said his ministry was only able to provide ID cards based on what the ethnicity themselves wanted to be called. He added that the recently created Ministry of Ethnic Affairs might be able to tackle this issue in the future.
In the statement announcing the citizenship of the “Mong Wong-Bamar” in March, the then-Ministry of Immigration said, “The heads of state of successive governments have recognized the contributions the [Mong Wong] Bamar ethnic group has made to national security.”
In 1998, the then junta leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, ordered the group be recognized as a subgroup under the ethnic Burman majority, also known commonly as Bamar.
Two referendums were held later that year in which the new categorization was “heartily accepted,” the ministry’s March statement claimed.
The ministry went on to say that through an apparent combination of bureaucratic mismanagement and miscommunication, the group was never properly granted full citizenship, resulting in only 620 out of “some 60,000 eligible [Mong Wong] Bamar voters in the Tarmoenye area having suffrage in the 2015 election.”
Mong Wong ethnic Chinese have lived in Burma for generations and therefore were eligible to be issued national IDs under Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, contended Thein Swe.
‘How Can They Become Citizens?’
Not all parties are satisfied with the Mong Wong group becoming full citizens.
Politicians from Shan State alleged that the Mong Wong were descended from members of the Kuomintang (KMT) Army, who had fled into Burma after being defeated by the communists in China. KMT troops, backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), wrought devastation on the region for several years in the late 1940s and ’50s after China’s civil war, seizing land and property, clashing with the Burma Army and communist soldiers, and leaving a legacy of anti-Chinese animosity.
The SNLD’s Sai Thant Zin said Mong Wong were originally from Yunnan Province in southern China; they spoke a different language and had different traditions.
“We all know that they are different from Burmese people, who make up the majority of our country,” he said. “Yet how can they become citizens, even though we all know they are different from the Burmese people?”
“We need to re-examine the law that allowed them to attain citizenship,” he said. “Other ethnic groups may make claims to citizenship based on this precedent.”
Mai Aike Kyaw, a spokesperson for the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), said that the issuance of IDs to the Mong Wong was a political ploy the Burma Army used to strengthen its position in persisting conflicts with ethnic armed groups in the region.
Sai Kyaw Nyunt, an SNLD spokesperson, argued that Burma’s ethnic armed groups were fighting against the central government because they had not yet received guarantees of a federal union, and that it was thus wrong to grant citizenship to those who had helped suppress that struggle.
“There are many Shan people in our state who still do not have IDs,” said Sai Kyaw Nyunt. “Why the government prioritized giving citizenship to the Mong Wong over the Shan people is the question we are trying to answer here.”
The Mong Wong militia is estimated to number around 100 soldiers in Shan State and has helped the Burma Army with reconnaissance and fighting against other ethnic armed groups in Kutkai Township and elsewhere in northern Shan State.
The Shan State Army-North, TNLA and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are all active in the area and have frequently clashed with Burma Army troops in recent years.
Following deliberations this week, lawmakers put the issue on record, apparently leaving it to the newly created Ethnic Affairs Ministry to resolve.