A veteran ethnic Mon leader who fought for equal rights for his people for over 70 years since Myanmar got independence, passed away in Yangon on Tuesday.
Nai Ngwe Thein was once a member of the security forces under Gen. Aung San’s leadership. According to his family, he passed away at 6 p.m. in his home in Yangon aged 96 years old. His death was preceded by a long-term illness. His funeral will be held on Saturday, Oct. 6.
Before his death, Nai Ngwe Thein served as chairman of the Mon National Party and worked along with other ethnic groups as a member of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA). His former political party, the Mon National Democratic Front (MNDF), won four seats in the 1990 elections.
He entered the world of politics when he was 25 years old, later working with the NLD, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as a member of the UNA fighting for human rights and democracy under the suppression of the military regime.
Many of his ethnic Mon comrades who worked with him over the years have expressed sadness at his passing, saying that though he worked hard for many long years, he didn’t get to see freedom for his ethnic Mon people.
Min Kyi Win, Mon State’s minister for the environment and natural resources, said Nai Ngwe Thein was a good leader who committed almost his whole life to serving his ethnic Mon people.
“He was the first person to start the fight for the freedom of the ethnic Mon. He served his people until he could not move from his bed,” said Min Kyi Win.
Min Kyi Win, who once served as general secretary of the MNDF, said he and Nai Ngwe Thein once spent time in prison together after the Myanmar military regime arrested them in 1998.
He went on to say that Nai Ngwe Thein was responsible for the Mon ethnic people gaining official recognition as an ethnic group of Myanmar, at a time when the military regime refused to recognize them.
“The Burmese did not [officially] recognize the ethnic Mon. [Nai Ngwe Thein] fought for it until Burmese had to recognize our ethnic Mon are in the country of Myanmar,” said Min Kyi Win.
Nai Ngwe Thein envisioned equal rights for the Mon, including their right to self-determination. He joined the Mon National Defense Organization (MNDO) an ethnic armed group and was an executive member for 10 years until 1958 when U Nu’s government successfully persuaded the group to disarm and become a political entity.
When Gen. Ne Win’s military dictatorship declared Mon State the official home of the ethnic Mon, Nai Ngwe Thein and his Mon comrades were not yet satisfied as they still desired self-determination.
“He died without seeing the fruits of his fight for rights. He could only see the skin [of the fruit],” said Min Kyi Win.
Other Mon politicians must carry on his foundations and fight for equal rights for the Mon, said Min Kyi Win.
Nai Ngwe Thein was born in Thong Ein Village, in Karen State in 1923 to parents Nai Thar Ton Aung and Mi Ngwe Sein. He attended Jackson College in 1942, and participated in the anti-fascist movement alongside the Burmese Independence Army (BIA). He served a member of the BIA’s security forces in Kyaik Lat, Ayeyarwaddy Division.
When the BIA reformed as the Burma Defense Army (BDA), Gen. Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, invited him to join cadet training and he served as a member of a guerrilla force in Dagon Township, Yangon in 1945 when the BDA attacked Japanese troops who had invaded the country. He resigned as a member of the group when Gen. Aung San was assassinated in 1947.
In his time, he dealt with many generations of Myanmar’s military regime including the military governments of U Nu, Gen. Ne Win, Gen. Saw Maung, and Gen. Than Shwe.
Nai Ngwe Thein was sent to prison as a political prisoner four times during his lifetime. He was detained first in 1948 in Moulmein Prison. He was arrested for a second time in 1962 when U Ne Win orchestrated a military coup. After being arrested in 1990, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison. His fourth imprisonment, a sentence of seven years, came in 1998 for writing a letter to the New Mon State Party advising them against signing the ceasefire agreement.
The letter said that as long as the Mon didn’t have equal rights or democracy, they should not sign a ceasefire with the military as it would only serve to prolong the success of their regime. After the letter was discovered, he and other Mon political leaders were detained and sentenced to imprisonment.