Last year’s military takeover of Myanmar sparked a range of different ideological responses among the ethnic people of Mon State, known locally as Yamanya. Some Mon opted to cooperate with the junta, while others have taken up arms to fight it. And some simply view the crisis as a power struggle among Myanmar’s majority Bamar ethnicity.
The Mon have broadly divided into three groups — political allies of the junta, those engaging with the junta under the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and those fighting the junta both politically and militarily.
Among those opting to cooperate with the regime are the Mon Unity Party (MUP), which allied with the junta soon after the February 2021 coup.
One month before the coup, the MUP was poised to hold talks with the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the 2020 general election. But the meeting was cancelled after the two sides failed to reach agreement on the venue.
Soon after the military takeover, MUP executive committee member Dr. Banyar Aung Moe joined the State Administration Council (SAC), the junta’s governing body.
Explaining the decision at the time, MUP spokesman Nai Layi Tama told The Irrawaddy: “Previously we chose the path of confrontation in our fight for a federal Union, but many lost their lives and we failed to achieve our objective. Now, as we continue our journey to a federal democratic Union, we don’t want to choose a path that results in bloodshed.”
Nai Layi Tama has himself joined the junta’s administrative body in Mon State. However, some 60 members resigned from the MUP in March last year over the party’s decision to ally with the regime, according to Mon political circles.
Among them was Dr Aung Naing Oo, a prominent Mon politician who served as deputy speaker of Mon State Parliament.
Some Mon militia groups also began collaborating with the junta about a year after the coup.
The Mon Peace Defense Force (MPDF), which had split from the New Mon State Party in 2010 and surrendered to Myanmar military, announced on October 10 this year that it had transformed itself into local pro-regime militias.
In a statement, it said its local militias were cooperating with junta forces to suppress the threat of “terrorism” – a term used by the junta to describe armed resistance.
A Mon political analyst who asked for anonymity said Mon militias have long been affiliated with the Myanmar military and do not enjoy the support of Mon people.
“The regime has revived these groups so they can say that there are also ethnic armed groups that support them [besides those that oppose the regime]. They have also created such groups in the past. This time it has done so to trigger armed conflict in the region,” he said.
Groups in junta peace talks
The New Mon State Party (NMSP), a long-standing ethnic armed organization (EAO), has held two rounds of talks with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing so far.
Established in 1958, the NMSP signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in February 2018. The group is headquartered in the east of Ye Township, and has around 1,500 members, according to observers.
The NMSP held its first meeting with junta boss in May this year in Naypyitaw, and the second on October 11. The NMSP delegation was led by its vice chair Nai Aung Min.
The NMSP reportedly presented Mon groups’ plan to draft a Yamanya Constitution, a resolution reached at the Mon National Conference in May, during its first meeting with Min Aung Hlaing. Regime media reports however made no mention of the draft.
Junta media said Min Aung Hlaing discussed establishing a federal Union based on a multi-party democracy that meets the wishes of the people. The junta chief said that ethnic people could press to have their demands met through a national parliament, and those wishing to stay armed could join the Myanmar military or its Border Guard Force (BGF).
The NMSP then suspended talks after 10 Mon State-based civil society organizations issued a joint statement calling on it to break off contact with the regime.
But after hearing that EAOs based in northern Myanmar were holding talks with the regime, the NMSP executive committee voted to resume negotiations.
The group said that during the second meeting it called for a dialogue involving all stakeholders, including EAOs and detained civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The regime said the meeting discussed legislative powers enshrined in the army-drafted 2008 Constitution for Union and sub-national parliaments, and post-2020 plans adopted by the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee.
The NMSP said it had agreed to hold another round of talks as positions expressed by the junta at the meeting were not clear.
The NMSP’s statement following the meeting clearly showed it had not reached an agreement with the regime, said an ethnic affairs analyst based in central Myanmar.
“What Min Aung Hlaing said is that ethnic people can either join the [junta] military or turn themselves into BGF if they want to hold arms. The NMSP obviously got nothing from the meeting. That’s why it said it had agreed to hold further talks. The regime is yet to reach a new agreement with either the NMSP or any other group,” he said.
A Mon affairs analyst added that the NMSP held the talks over concern of military encroachment by the junta.
“There are no junta troops around NMSP headquarters but there are lots in Ye Township. So NMSP leaders may be wary about possible military pressure,” he said.
Groups opposing the regime
As well as political opposition to the junta, some groups have taken up arms against the regime in Mon State.
The umbrella for resistance is the Mon State Interim Coordination Committee (MSICC), a member of the National Unity Consultative Council – the highest-level political coalition opposing the junta.
The MSICC is cooperating with the national council’s mission to draft federal democracy charters.
The MSICC consists of Mon political parties, elected lawmakers and civil social organizations working to establish a democratic federal Mon State. Its chair is Nai Thuwunna, who also serves as labor minister in the parallel civilian National Unity Government (NUG).
Nai Kaung Ywut, a retired colonel from the NMSP, serves as deputy defense minister in the NUG, representing the MSICC.
The state also has a resistance group, the Mon State Defense Force (MDSF), operating under NUG command. The MDSF (North) is active in Thaton Township while MDSF (South) operates in Ye Township.
The MDSF is engaged in fighting with junta troops in and around Ye Township. There are also other local resistance groups fighting regime forces, including Ye Belu and the Mon State Revolutionary Organization.
Most Mon resistance groups are allied to Myanmar’s oldest EAO, the Karen National Union, which provides them with military training, according to ethnic affairs analysts.
On October 3, KNU’s Brigade 1 based in Thaton District formed a resistance coalition with 24 local People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). The resistance coalition consists of PDFs from Paung, Bilin, Thaton and Theinzayat towns in Mon State and will operate under the direct command of KNU Brigade 1.
Meanwhile, another Mon armed resistance group is currently establishing a base in Mudon and Thanphyuzayat, according to the ethnic affairs analyst from central Myanmar. Group members are reportedly undergoing military training under the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a military coalition consisting of the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.
No Unity Among Mon Political Organizations
The Yamanya Federal Force (YFF), an anti-regime group based in Mon State, is unhappy that the oldest Mon revolutionary group, the NMSP, is engaged in talks with the junta.
“I think the NMSP is taking a wait-and-see attitude as it continues down the NCA path,” a YFF spokesman said. “My view is the NMSP should instead gather Mon revolutionary forces under its leadership. The revolutionary forces would accept an offer of NMSP leadership. The NMSP should adopt specific policies and prepare for this,” he said.
It is time that Mon people fought for self-determination rather than holding talks with a regime that proposes to absorb them into the BGF, he added.
The ethnic affairs analyst from central Myanmar said Mon political forces are divided over armed resistance against the regime.
“The MUP is cooperating with the regime, but in fact it consulted the NMPS before deciding to join the regime. And the views of Buddhist Mon monks, who are influential figures in Mon political circles, also played a part. They decided to make peace with the regime for the time being. This decision was made based on the fact that the NMSP is a relatively small armed group, and there is still a need to build unity among Mon political forces. And perhaps they also hope they can obtain their rights at the [negotiating] table while the SAC is faced with political crisis,” said the analyst.
It’s not just Mon political organizations who are lost in this fog; Mon people are also disoriented in the current political landscape, said a Mon ethnic affairs analyst.
They are confused over whether to cooperate with the regime and demand their rights through talks, stick to the NCA path, or join resistance groups and fight for their rights, he said.
Mon State is expected to experience more repercussions from escalating armed conflicts in Myanmar, he said.
“Armed conflicts are taking place across the country. This will definitely affect Mon State and may have more serious impacts in the months to come. As a Mon ethnic person, my view is that dialogue with the SAC is not the solution for the current political crisis. It will not guarantee the rights that we Mon people aspire to. If an agreement is reached, it will never be implemented. [Negotiations] are just the regime’s strategy for survival amid the political crisis. The talks will bring no results for Mon people,” he said.