Cecile Medail examines voices of local people in Mon State on the power of symbolic gestures in building trust between groups.
It has now been six months since the new bridge across the Thanlwin (Salween) River in Mon State was officially renamed after General Aung San, despite local people’s desire for a name that is relevant to the area. As I discovered, although some time has passed, the bitter feelings that the naming controversy created are still vivid in people’s minds. Over the past year, I have spent 3 months living in Mon State conducting interviews with locals as part of my doctoral research on the aspirations of ethnic peoples in Myanmar. The issue of the bridge name inevitably cropped up in discussions with people from all social backgrounds.
While ‘Bridgegate’ has been discussed previously on Tea Circle from national level Burmanization and politicking perspectives, in this article I offer some voices and opinions of local people showing that a name has the power to build or burn bridges of trust between the majority and minority groups.
The construction of this bridge was crucial because it connects Mawlamyine permanently to Chaung Zon, one of Mon State’s ten townships, which is located on an island known as ‘Bilu Kyun’ – literally meaning ‘Ogre Island’. Bilu Kyun is situated half a kilometre from Mawlamyine city on the opposite bank of the Thanlwin River flowing into the Andaman Sea. About 30 kilometres long, Bilu Kyun is approximately the size of Singapore although it counts only 200,000 inhabitants living in 78 villages. Despite being a short distance away from Mawlamyine, the lack of infrastructure linking Bilu Kyun to the mainland has meant that development has been much slower to reach this green island. Alongside declining traditional rural industries and handicrafts, agriculture remains the main source of livelihood. However, as farmers in Kahnwa village complained, since everything is done by hand, the combination of high labour costs and low rice prices prevent them from making any profits. Roads were paved and villages connected to the national electricity grid only very recently, at the end of the previous government’s mandate. In addition, life before the bridge was built was made harder for the cut-off island residents who wanted to see a doctor or sell and buy goods in Mawlamyine. People had to board infrequent ferries or overloaded long-tailed boats to get to Mawlamyine. This could prove particularly difficult during the rainy season as attempts to cross the river depend on the weather and the strength of the ocean tide. My friend, a Chaung Zon resident, who was pregnant while the bridge was still under construction, had to rent an apartment in Mawlamyine because crossing the river to go to the doctor could sometimes be too hazardous. This is how much local people needed a bridge.
The previous Thein Sein government originally started the construction of the bridge in February 2015 under the name Thanlwin – Chaung Zon Bridge, which was finally completed in April this year. The Ministry of Construction revealed the decision to rename the bridge after General Aung San through a letter announcing the date of the naming ceremony sent to Mon State Parliament representatives. Most people first heard about the naming decision through U Aung Naing Oo, Deputy Speaker of the Mon Parliament who posted the letter on his Facebook page. As representative of the Chaung Zon constituency from the All Mon Region Democratic Party (AMRDP), he expressed his disagreement with a name that had no relation to the area.
The naming ceremony, initially planned for the 13th of February, was eventually postponed as a result of local opposition to the new name. Discussions about changing the name were held with the former Mon State Chief Minister, who agreed to change the name of the bridge to ‘Yamanya’, which means Mon State in Mon language. This decision was also supported by NLD representatives at the Mon State Parliament and announced publicly (also on the 13th of February) by Nai Thet Lwin, the vice Chairman of the Mon National Party (MNP) and the first Union Minister for Ethnic Affairs. However, his daughter, Mi Kon Chan, an NLD representative from Paung Township submitted a proposal to approve the name ‘Aung San’ at the Union Parliament.
On February 28th, the Parliament agreed to discuss the proposal and this triggered an informal protest on Bilu Kyun where around 3000 people gathered to call for a name celebrating Mon identity. On March 7, a state-level protest committee made up of 96 members from surrounding townships was formed at a monastery in Mawlamyine in order to support sustained protests. On March 14th, the parliament voted with a vast majority to approve the naming of the bridge after Aung San. Union Minister for Ethnic Affairs Nai Thet Lwin publicly criticised this process, calling into question the authority of the Union Parliament to make a decision on a local matter such as a bridge name.
On the 19th of March, over 20,000 protested in Mawlamyine against the decision. A petition campaign was also conducted, collecting over 120,000 signatures opposing to the bridge name. Nevertheless, the signs naming the bridge after Aung San were put up without an official naming ceremony, before dawn on the 27th of April, two weeks before the bridge was officially open to traffic.
With such a vital transport link finally serving the public, how can we interpret the protests over the seemingly small issue of the bridge name now that we are several months out? During my fieldwork, local people expressed views that echoed and brought new insights on the two main perspectives already discussed on Tea Circle: first, stepping away from the politicking explanation, people claim ownership over one of Myanmar’s biggest protests since the democratic transition began in 2011; second, as a reaction to the perceived Burmanisation of ethnic identities, Mon people’s attitude reveal that symbolic measures supporting recognition of local identities are essential to build trust between minorities and the majority and support the creation of an inclusive national identity.
First, since the timing of the controversy and protests coincided with the up-coming April 1st by-election in Chaung Zon Township, where one seat was left vacant by the NLD, it is reasonable to think that competing Mon parties could have seen the protests as instrumental in order to defeat the NLD. The bridge controversy undeniably cast a shadow on the popularity of the NLD, which translated electorally into the loss of its Chaung Zon seat to the military backed Union Solidarity and Development party (USDP). However, views expressed see this political fact as the consequence of popular dissatisfaction, not as political instrumentalisation of popular discontent.
When I asked a monk from Bilu Kyun about the political implications of the protests, his answer was straightforward: “The protests did not start because of political parties but as a result of people’s desire. The money used in the protest was not provided by political parties, but only by the community”. As a villager from Paung Township put it: “The protest came from ordinary people’s feelings only.” The fact that people from many different walks of life participated in the 19th March protest – CSO, youths, monks, women’s groups, media, villagers, old people and children – demonstrates the extent of popular involvement. In addition, all ethnic groups in Mon State – Bamar, Kayin, Pa-O with a majority of Mon – joined the protests against, as a Pa-O friend put it, “a decision denying minority rights”. While many people heard about the protest through the Mon State Youth Network or Facebook, many joined spontaneously. A woman I met in Thanbyuzayat was able to participate because she happened to be in Mawlamyine buying medicine for her mother. A man I met in Mudon township told me: “Even though we are not from Bilu Kyun we are Mon, so we should participate in the protest”.
A leading member of the 96 People Committee explained that only monks and local people led the Committee, which did not involve any political party members or people close to political parties. The reason behind this choice was that they did not want to be seen as using the bridge name as an opportunity to turn people against the NLD in the upcoming by-election. Although Mon political parties publicly expressed their disagreement with the change of the name, they did not participate in the protests either. An AMRDP member expressly mentioned that they wanted to avoid accusations of supporting the USDP against the NLD in the by-election.
A Kachin woman also shared with me her rejection of a political intrumentalisation of the protest:
“The majority ignores ethnic grievances and uses the law to stifle minority demands. If there were a sense of union spirit, the NLD would let the state level make such kinds of decisions. This is a very little case so they could use a Mon name to show how big their heart is. Even if U Aung Naing Oo was using the bridge name as an instrument to undermine the NLD’s position in the by-election, he has a legitimate right to do it, because [as an incumbent Chaung Zon representative at the Mon State parliament] he is connected to people, people recognize him as leader because he expresses how they really feel.”
The reason behind the rejection of the instrumental explanation of the protests leads to the second point of this article: In a context where Mon culture has been under threat of assimilation by the Bamar dominant culture, the politicking explanation may undermine the importance of symbolic measures supporting local identity as necessary steps to build trust and create an inclusive national identity.
For many, the bridge name reflects a “strategy of Burmanization”. As another monk who took a leading role in the protests put it:
“They choose a Bamar hero’s name even though the bridge is situated in a Mon area. This illustrates a step-by-step Burmanisation strategy. Later, they will change more things. This way is the scariest. They did [it] like this and now all our Mon village names have changed to Burmese names.”
As U Min Soe Lin, Mon representative at the Union parliament told me:
“The change of name made people feel a lot of pain in their heart. This is totally against the will of our ethnic people. This happens during the [21st century Panglong] peace process, but in spirit it means that the Bamar occupy the Mon. From Aung San Suu Kyi’s point of view, this might be negligible, but I don’t think it is a small thing; it is very painful.”
As I was talking with a group of women in a village on Bilu Kyun, the question of names came up spontaneously: “Mon people have fewer opportunities than Bamar people; for example the Bamar are trying to control us by imposing names. If the government respected local people, we could have many places with Mon names”. When I asked a group of men from the same village about their feeling on the bridge name, a more pragmatic answer came up: “It is good because the government already set it up. If we want to change it we cannot so we like it”. While some of the villagers I met in Paung Township noted that, “naming is not important, the important thing is that the bridge is strong”, many others thought that the bridge should have a geographic name or refer to a Mon leader.
“The bridge was not built by Aung San, he never came here, he is not from here, therefore, it is not his business. Even though the bridge is named after General Aung San, nobody calls it that.”
Even when travelling far away from Bilu Kyun to meet with villagers living in a conflict-affected village of Ye Township, I could hear references to the bridge:
“Now we have peace but the government does not care about ethnic people, they do not recognize that Mon and Burmese people are different.”
In another village under the control of the Mon armed group in Kyaik Mayaw Township, young villagers also joined the protest to express their disagreement:
“Even though we were more than 20,000 protesters we did not win so we really hate the government and this is why we want more management by Mon people for Mon State. If we had more opportunities this would not happen.”
Again and again people expressed to me the importance of symbolic measures in building trust and how ignoring these can have an equally damaging effect on the relationship between local people and the NLD government. One of the monks quoted above also linked the change of the bridge name with the increasing number of General Aung San statues that have been erected since the NLD came into power.
“It is a kind of strategy to persuade people to trust and respect the NLD, but this is a wrong strategy. I would like a name based on the local area, not because I don’t like Aung San, but because the world believes Aung San Suu Kyi is the mother of democracy in Myanmar, so she should respect the will of the people”.
Similarly invoking democracy as requiring that the government must work for the people, a group of women I met in Thanbuyzayat declared “If the government respected Mon people they should give a Mon name, but they’ve done the opposite.”
Interestingly, some people interviewed in Bilu Kyun did not join the protest, expressing fear of showing dissent: “We don’t like the name but we cannot complain about it.” Some villagers did not even know about the protest: “If we knew about the protest, we would not have joined because we are afraid that the government will bomb us.” Such a strong statement shows that the government, although represented by the historic democratic opposition party is still perceived as a potential threat to human security. This definitely expresses how much local people don’t trust that the country has changed.
A Bamar friend described the naming of the bridge as a “useless move”. “The majority is crushing the minorities again because they don’t listen to the will of the people. How can the minorities trust our government? Even if my friends accuse me of being unpatriotic, I disagree with the NLD’s decision on the bridge name, the government should work for the people because the government is for us.”
It is clear that locals in Mon State do not endorse the bridge name and that such a move has altered the hope they once had that the NLD could fulfil ethnic aspirations. From U Aung Naing Oo’s perspective, the bridge name may appear as a minor issue, but when considered from an ethnic perspective it becomes significant.
“As a result of the conflict between the Bamar majority and ethnic minorities, the government should consider carefully what can cause separation and what can bring people together. Identity is important so they should respect identity and give the bridge a name that is relevant to the ethnic area or an ethnic leader. In this sense, the renaming of the bridge after General Aung San does not support reconciliation because he is a Bamar hero and therefore it does not recognize local identity.”
The ‘Bridgegate’ controversy illustrates the institutional problem that Myanmar is facing, highlighting that the NLD government fails to acknowledge the importance of symbolic measures for ethnic minorities, such as recognizing the power to name local places of importance according to local desires. Denying ethnic states this right and using the NLD dominated national Parliament to adopt the bridge name demonstrates that the NLD majority is using its legal power to impose its will. Unsurprisingly, many feel that little has changed as they see democracy as the rule of the Bamar majority group, which is now represented by the NLD.
In conclusion, the practical benefits of developing a transport link might come at the expense of a feeling of exclusion for ethnic minorities in Myanmar if symbolic measures recognizing local identity are denied. To the contrary, the promotion of symbolic measures protecting ethnic identity may help create a sense of belonging to the wider community. As a Mon scholar put it: “We need a consensual vision of national identity, which provides equal rights for all. Democracy won’t work without this and civil war will break out again.”
Cecile Medail is a PhD candidate at UNSW Canberra. She worked with Burmese grassroots organizations in Thailand and in Myanmar for seven years where she provided capacity building support to young community activists from various ethnic backgrounds. She has been a PhD candidate at the UNSW-Canberra since 2015 and has spent most of the past year conducting her fieldwork in Myanmar. Her research seeks to determine the perceived needs and aspirations of Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities and shed light on the institutional arrangements required to build an inclusive society.