MUDON TOWNSHIP, Mon State — Thousands of people celebrated their ethnic Mon heritage in southeastern Burma’s Mon State on Saturday, with ethnic leaders reiterating support for peace talks between rebels and the central government, while also remaining apprehensive.
On the 67th Mon National Day, a leader of the New Mon State Party (NMSP) said his group’s ceasefire with the government in 2012 had been a step forward, but that it was still too early for his troops to give up their arms because demands for a federal system had not yet been met.
“We will keep our armed struggle while also trying to have political talks,” Nai Htaw Mon, chairman of the NMSP, told a crowd of thousands in Kamarwet village, Mudon Township. He said it was important to begin political dialogue soon.
“The UNFC is preparing for peace talks with the government,” he said, referring to the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of ethnic armed groups. “We will try to have the talks as soon as we can.”
The Mon are one of Burma’s major ethnic groups, constituting about 3 million of the country’s 60 million or so population. For decades after Burma achieved independence, the Mon and other ethnic minority groups fought insurgencies against the central government in pursuit of greater political autonomy and more control over natural resources in their states and divisions.
President Thein Sein’s administration has signed ceasefires with most of the major ethnic armed groups, and is now pushing to consolidate those deals into a nationwide ceasefire.
Mon State Chief Minister Ohn Myint sent a message to the Mon National Day celebration, urging support for the peace process.
“This is a special day for the Mon people. The Mon lived with their kingdom in the past and played an important part in the country’s history,” he wrote in a letter to the public, read to the crowd by Col. Htay Myint Aung, the state minister for security and border affairs.
“We all have bitter experiences from the past. It’s best to learn from it. This is the time to join hands and work together to achieve peace with the current government.”
Like many ethnic minorities in Burma, the Mon are pushing for constitutional amendments to allow for political autonomy within a federal structure.
But Min Kyi Win, a leader of the Mon Democracy Party (MDP), which plans to participate in the 2015 general elections, said he was not optimistic about the odds for amendments. Any changes to the military-drafted charter must be approved by more than three-fourths of the legislature, while a quarter of seats in Parliament are reserved for military representatives.
“We know they will not approve the amendments that the people have requested,” he said.
Mon National Day commemorates the establishment of the first Mon kingdom, Hongsawadee, in 573 AD. The ethnic group has kept the holiday alive for more than 60 years, despite efforts by the former military regime to discourage overt displays of ethnic nationalism.
The current government has relaxed restrictions, and the Mon now openly celebrate their national day across the state, both in government and Mon rebel-controlled areas. At the festivities on Saturday in Mudon Township, performers marched with ethnic Mon flags, wearing traditional white tops and red sarongs as they sang and danced to the beat of drums.
Still, some restrictions remain. The Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), the armed wing of the new NMSP, was not allowed to participate in a march in Ye Township.
Three Mon kingdoms ruled much of Lower Burma from the 9th century to the middle of the 18th century, until the Burmese King Alaungpaya captured the former Mon royal capital of Pegu. The region gradually came under full Burmese control and the Mon lost much of their political influence.