The Irrawaddy

Obsession With Statues Only Fuels Distrust in Union Government

Then Lower House Speaker U Win Myint unveils a statue of Gen. Aung San in Mandalay in 2017.

YANGON — Looking at images of security forces clashing with local ethnic people protesting a plan to erect a statue of General Aung San in the Karenni state capital Loikaw the other day, one could only wonder why state governments are so obsessed with putting up likenesses of the national independence hero.

It was not the first time a state government has faced serious criticism over the issue, especially in ethnic areas. Since 2015, ethnic Chin, Mon and Kachin demonstrators have confronted their state governments over plans to put up statues. Karenni State was only the latest one. These governments have taken an uncompromising approach, treating the issue with the utmost seriousness while ignoring local criticism. They claim that erecting such statues honors the national hero and is done in the spirit of Aung San’s vision of national unity.

In Myanmar, Gen. Aung San, the father of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is nationally regarded as the country’s independence hero for his struggle to free the country from British colonial rule 70 years ago. Shortly before independence, he pledged to transform Myanmar into a country exemplifying federalism and ethnic equality in the 1947 Panglong Agreement. However, 71 years after the general’s untimely death that same year, those pledges remain unfulfilled.

That is the source of ethnic people’s discontent. With state governments apparently more concerned about putting up statues of Gen. Aung San than fulfilling his promises, ethnic people have taken to the streets to vent their anger and opposition to the statue plans, occasionally resulting in clashes.

It’s embarrassing to see state governments so determined to erect the statues while failing to listen to the public’s voice. It’s ridiculous that this should happen under a democratic government.

If the state governments — who are footing the bill in most cases — want to avoid controversy, they should take the money budgeted for statues and spend it on regional development. While the cost of a bronze statue varies depending on its size, the minimum cost is around 10 million kyats (more than US$7,000). It was alarming to learn that Karenni State — one of the least developed regions in the country — plans to spend more than US$56,800 on its statue. That amount of money could make a big difference in the lives of ethnic people in far-flung areas.

Known for his modesty, Gen. Aung San himself would not be happy to see what his so-called admirers are doing: paying more attention to superficial activities than trying to achieve what he longed to see in Myanmar—unity and equality among all people residing in the country. Make no mistake: The state governments’ deafness to the voices of their people is an insult to the feelings of ethnic people and will only fuel distrust in the central government. If that happens, it will hinder the peace process the National League for Democracy-led government has been promoting as it strives for the national reconciliation that was the essence of the 1947 Panglong Agreement.