Commentary

Union Govt Rehashes Kayah State Playbook in Mon State Dispute

By Lawi Weng 1 July 2019

When disputes over the legacy of Gen. Aung San erupted in Mon State recently, I thought it might be the last time—and I expected that the NLD would have learned from their past mistakes.

It was a similar dispute to one that broke out in Kayah State between the local and state government. In two separate cases in Mon State, the NLD government did not listen to the voices of local ethnic people, and instead used their power to do as they pleased.

The first statue they built was in my hometown of Mudon. Locals, including monks, protested.

Then, when the NLD government built a new bridge between Mawlamyine and Chongzon, they ignored local proposals for the naming of the bridge and instead named it after the general. From a local perspective, this mistake will hurt the NLD in upcoming elections, in 2020.

Of course, the NLD lost a seat in Chongzon during by-elections in 2018. Nonetheless, reflecting on disputes in Kayah State, it is clear the NLD never learns from their mistakes.

The dispute in Kayah State is even more tense than in Mon, where a contingent of ethnic rights activists are active and strong. The NLD first tried to erect the statue openly, until they saw how strong the opposition was; then, they built it in silence and under the cover of night. This is how it happened in Mon State too.

The Mon State government tried to act the same way as the Kayah State government did, but they did not expect local opposition to be as strong as it was. They resorted to the use of violence, threatening to arrest protesters.

People in Mon were disappointed to see that, in the end, the Union government stepped in in Kayah State. Many Mon held similar protests to those in Kayah, but after the protests they went back home without having made strong political demands of the government. Mon activists regret this. Many ethnic people across the country were excited to see how strongly the local people in Kayah State proved to be against the Gen. Aung San statue there.

Both local rights activists and the government need to sit together and negotiate. The NLD government expects to be able to convince activists to let the projects proceed, but the activists will stick to their position. When they last met, the two sides only spoke about how exactly the government would remove the statue, but the government still wants the statue to remain. Negotiations collapsed when the chief minister of Kayah State told activists his government would not let anyone remove it.

When negotiations collapsed, many of us expected locals to protest, possibly even violently. They were disappointed with the chief minister, who had used the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens to sue six protestors for slander and reputational harm over their criticisms of him.

No one has dared to oppose the state since. It was a successful plan to silence activists. The NLD state government in Kayah won, just like in Mon State. But the NLD will face similar loses in Kayah State in the 2020 election.

For many decades, most of the ethnic people believed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party would grant equal ethnic rights to ethnic minorities. After three years of rule, ethnic groups have lost hope in the NLD. Building Gen. Aung San statues in ethnic states shows the NLD government doesn’t care about ethnic history, and does not respect the voices of the ethnic people, who did not want statues of Gen. Aung San in their cities—they wanted to see how the NLD would implement the promise Gen. Aung San made in the Panglong Agreement.

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