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.

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!