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Up Close With Burma's Least-Known Rebels, Fighting For Autonomy For 60 Years

A reporter travels to the Thai-Burmese border to find the rebel army of the Mons, an ethnic minority for whom little has changed despite the opening up of the Myanmar regime.

View from the hills behind Inthein, Burma
View from the hills behind Inthein, Burma
Bruno Philip

PALAUNG – On a recent rainy monsoon morning in Palaung, a Burmese village close to the Thai border, a thin man is trying to charge up a group of camouflage-wearing, self-declared freedom fighters.

The man, named Nay Han Hta, wears glasses with the look of a primary school teacher. Like all the other men in these regions, his mouth is red-stained from chewing betel leaves. The guerilla group he’s leading is not well-known, even if it was one of the first groups in the country to rebel against the regime -- more than 60 years ago.

The Mon people, as they are known, are an ethnic group from the south of Burma (also known as Myanmar), where they were the original founders of a powerful kingdom many centuries ago.

There are three million Mons scattered around southern Burma. While about a third of them still speak their ancestors’ dialect, the Mons refuse to be assimilated to the dominant Burmese ethnic group, the Bamar.

In a bamboo hut, about 50 soldiers are sitting on a row of benches, wearing their square caps. Some of them display intimidating ritual tattoos on their forearms. Nay Han Hta, the rebel group’s “Secretary general,” explains to his men that the truce clinched with the government in January 2012 means nothing. “We are not happy with the political dialog engaged with the government,” says the man. If the Burmese don’t compromise, he says, “we will have to reconsider the ceasefire.”

The conflict started, among other things, because the Mon rebels refused to respect the constitution set up by the military dictatorship – which “self-dissolved” in the spring of 2011, and of which the current government is the last avatar.

Nay Han Hta starts a long, grandiloquent speech listing the rebel group’s grievances, including the refusal by the Burmese government to create a Burmese federation granting ethnic minorities more autonomy. He reminds his men about what happened during military dictatorship and how the democratic uprising was crushed in 1988. What the Mon people want, he explains, is quite simple: “Complete autonomy in a Burmese federation.”

At regular intervals, the generator that provides electricity to the village spits out a smelly cloud of smoke into the room. Outside, under the heavy rain, floats the red flag of the New Mon State Party (NMSP, the rebel group’s name) with its blue star and the golden sacred goose – the Mon mythical bird.

[rebelmouse-image 27086130 alt="""" original_size="332x217" expand=1]

The NMSP flag - source: Wikimedia

Every time a soldier leaves for the bathroom, he salutes the chief, who is standing between his deputies. They are the “minister” of foreign affairs and the “5th brigade general,” whose military “jurisdiction” comprises the Palaung village and its 300 houses and 3,000 inhabitants.

“We are not Burmese, we are Mon!”

We are in a “liberated zone,” and it is clear that order and discipline rule. Outside, a sign reads: “Be ready to die for your country.”

“We Mon people have our own identity. We are not Chinese, we are not Burmese, we are Mon!” says the chief. “In the Burmese schools, our brothers are forced to learn Burmese, and are not allowed to learn Mon. Because we are not Burmese – in the ethnic sense – we are cast aside,” he says.

The separatist movement was born in 1948, when Burma became independent from the British Empire. Like every political group representing the ethnic minorities that comprise 30% of Burma’s population, it suffered from internal splits and power struggles, leading to violent and deadly spats among factions. In 1995, the NMSP signed a first ceasefire with the Burmese government. It was broken later but it still allows the group to control the zones bordering Thailand, which are de facto independent.

Nay Han Hta takes us for a ride in his silver four-wheel drive. The bumpy track across the jungle is dominated by high and steep hills that continue to the west as far as the eye can see. We’re not too far from Moulmein, capital of the “Mon state,” a concept created by the Burmese government in 1974 to perpetuate the illusion that Mon people have their own territory.

Today, Pladonphite is Nay Han Hta’s destination. The village was built along a river, which has risen with the monsoon rain. It has a make-do clinic and a school. The NMSP isn’t rich, its revenues come from taxes on the Thai-Burmese border trade, but the control they have on these territories shows some kind of administrative independence.

The heavy rain is resonating on the school’s corrugated iron roof. It’s recess time. The teachers – six for 46 students – don’t really believe in the perspective of long-term peace. “The Burmese do not respect who we are,” says Aye Chan, the 28-year-old principal. “War is still a possibility,” she worries. For this young woman, one of the grievances that the Burmese government should address is to allow Mon to be an official language -- which is far from happening.

“You know,” says Nay Han Hta, “our struggle has been lengthy. I spent most of my life in the jungle. I know how difficult it is for Burmese people of this generation to change their attitude towards ethnic minorities.” He adds: “Especially for members of the military. Let’s not forget that behind this pseudo-democratic government, the generals are still pulling the strings.”

Every measure announced by the government – the liberation of political prisoners, the partial repeal of censorship, the democratic reforms that have been changing the country this past year and a half – don’t seem to affect the Mon people, entrenched in their inaccessible jungle. And given the government, for whom “autonomy” means “secession,” the Mons’ thirst for freedom will not be quenched any time soon.

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