Gen. Aung San Statues Are Costing NLD Political Support in Ethnic States

By Lawi Weng 14 February 2019

Disenchantment with the National League for Democracy (NLD) is growing over ongoing efforts to put up statues of General Aung San in the ethnic states—a campaign many accuse the ruling party of supporting. The pushback has been especially strong in Kayah State. Gen. Aung San is a hero to ethnic Bamar, but minority ethnic communities have their own heroes. Ethnic rights activists continue to protest the statues, seeing them as an attempt to destroy their account of local history.

Khun Be Du, a rights activist who led a protest against the Gen. Aung San statue in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah, accused the NLD of exploiting the independence hero.

“Gen. Aung San was a hero, so the NLD is building a statue to appear heroic by association,” he said.

However, the party does not respect Gen. Aung San’s historic political agreement with leaders of the country’s ethnic groups, he said.

“[The agreement] is part of history, so they don’t care about it. Today is their era, so they are confident they have done nothing wrong,” he said.

Khun Be Du said the NLD’s action was unfortunate, as it gained the party nothing while costing them the trust of other ethnic groups.

By continuing to implement the statue plan over the objections of local people, the NLD is generating tremendous ill will among a growing number of people, he said.

Senior NLD leaders have denied that the placement of statues reflects a party policy, or that the central leadership ordered representatives on the ground to implement it. Khun Be Du dismissed this denial. It is the party’s policy, he said, adding that the statue campaign is part of a political game by the NLD.

So far, statues of Gen. Aung San have been put up in ethnic states including Mon, Kachin, Chin and Kayah. The result has been to whip up greater nationalist feeling among the ethnic communities. Anti-statue activity, which began in Mon State, is getting more vigorous.

The recent protests in Loikaw resemble those that took place two years ago in Mon State, which drew thousands of people.

Nai Wona, a Mon rights activist, said the anti-statue rallies were a relatively new experience for the Mon, who were not used to protesting. In contrast, he said the protests in Kayah State had a particularly strong nationalist flavor, and warned that they could lead to serious violence.

In Mon State, sensitivity over the public invocation of Gen. Aung San began when the NLD government named a new bridge after him over the opposition of local ethnic Mon. Later, a statue of Gen. Aung San was built in Mudon Township even after Mon community leaders including Buddhist monks came out against it.

The NLD government ignored the voices of the ethnic Mon, and the protest in Mon State in 2017 was not successful. However, Min Latt, another rights activist form Mon State, said the Mon was the first group to show ethnic groups how to fight the NLD government on the issue.

The international community and the majority of the people in the country have a lot of respect for State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the NLD. So, many people in the country did not dare to stand up against her government. However, the ethnic Mon were willing to do it first, Min Latt said.

The Mon’s stand against the NLD wasn’t successful, but it inspired other groups who wish to oppose the NLD, Min Latt said.

Fond memories of the NLD

Khun Be Du, the activist who led an anti-statue protest in Loikaw, said that when he was living in exile in Thailand he worked with many NLD members and admired them.

“We asked the military regime to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi together, with one voice,” he said.

Khun Be Du is ethnic Kayan (a Karenni subgroup), and chairman of the Kayan National Party. He spent four years in prison after being arrested by the military regime in 2008 for organizing a campaign in his region against the 2008 Constitution.

He said that in 2004 he believed that the country would change politically if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were in charge.

“We believed she would be able to lay a good foundation for democracy and federalism in our country, which is what we ethnic people need,” he said.

However, he lost trust when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked ethnic political party leaders to make room for her party’s candidates in ethnic constituencies, as she was worried her party would not win the 2015 election.

But, she was not thinking about the ethnic parties’ concerns; this is why he stopped trusting her, he said.

When the NLD gained political power, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi showed little tolerance for criticism of herself or her party, Khun Be Du said. For example, Dr. Aye Maung was detained under the NLD government despite being a respected Arakanese ethnic leader.

When the NLD formed a government, it appointed ethnic ministers, but those ministers have no power, he said, adding that they were there merely for show. The NLD has done no work on behalf of ethnic groups since coming to power, he said.

The NLD’s current actions do nothing to advance the country’s political transition, something they said they would do with the cooperation of ethnic groups, Khun Be Du said. As a result, it is losing the political support of these groups, he said.

Khun Be Du said the ethnic Karenni have no choice but to fight against the NLD. “We have to confront them; this is our only option,” he said.  The NLD has the mindset of all majority groups, he said; they do not care about minority groups.