A Commentary by Sawor Mon
Today marks the Silver Jubilee of the ceasefire agreement between the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the military (Tatmadaw) government of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) on 29 June 1995. This peace agreement came after 40 years of armed struggle for political and ethnic rights by the Mon people against successive central governments in the country. Founded in 1958, the NMSP is an ethnic nationality-based armed organization that is active in southern regions of the Union of Myanmar.
There are different viewpoints upon the NMSP ceasefire agreement. Different people have different reasons. A former party member who was closely involved in documenting the ceasefire negotiations said:
“I cannot recall one main reason why the NMSP agree to the ceasefire. But there is a saying: ‘There is no eternal enemy or eternal friend in a revolution.’ At the time, a great concern of NMSP leaders was that they would be left out if the Karen National Union (KNU) made a ceasefire first with the government before them.1 The KNU co-exists with the NMSP in the Mon region. On the other hand, the NMSP was also exhausted by fighting, and one group of the party surrendered to the government during 1994 in Ye township. The NMSP was also facing a serious financial crisis as well as increasing pressures from the Thai government. Some of the top leaders therefore believed that they would have a better chance to mobilize public support by entering into a ceasefire agreement.”
As these different pressures increased, the chairman of the NMSP Nai Shwe Kyin presented a situation analysis to the central committee at a party conference in 1994. He noted the changes that had happened around the world following the end of the Cold War at the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Myanmar, this also had impact where ethnic armed organizations supported the creation of a federal state. The political mood was changing. Kokang, Wa and Mong La forces executed a coup and defected from the Communist Party of Burma in the northeast of the country; one of the brigades of Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) broke away to make a ceasefire with the SLORC government; Buddhist nationalists (who would later form the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) were putting pressure on the KNU at its headquarters at Manerplaw; and corrupt officers and township personnel who were about to face prosecution by the NMSP surrendered to the government.
At the same time, the NMSP was also under pressures from another direction: Thailand. During the ceasefire process, the party was in negotiations with the Military Intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt, who had a strong relationship with the Thai government. The Thai military then started putting pressure on Mon refugees and conducted a series of military trainings close to the Myanmar border where the headquarters of the NMSP is based. The Thai government had two motives. They wanted the Myanmar government to join their ASEAN dream. They also had new business interests in the Tanintharyi Region and were determined to gain access to natural gas from the Andaman Sea at the cheapest price possible. Border trade through NMSP-controlled territory around Three Pagodas Pass was also a Thai government priority, and negotiations were just beginning on what became the Dawei Deep Sea Port initiative.
The NMSP and SLORC government negotiated four times before concluding the ceasefire agreement: 31 December 1993 – 1 January 1994; the third week of March 1994; the first week of June 1994; and May 1995. The signing ceremony then took place in the Aung San Hall at the headquarters of the Tatmadaw’s Southeast Regional Command in Mawlamyine township on 29 June 1995. However, without any prior consultation with the NMSP, a backdrop was set up on the wall at the ceasefire ceremony stating: “Welcome New Mon State Party for returning to the legal fold”. This was an arbitrary decision made by the SLORC government and implied that the NMSP had been an “illegal organisation” now legitimized by the military authorities. This is a characterization that the NMSP rejected. Many NMSP members therefore concluded that, seeing this, their leaders realised that they had been tricked by the SLORC government into agreeing a ceasefire without sufficient time for consideration.
At the first peace talk meeting, the SLORC government offered local administrative power to the NMSP that was similar to the present-day Wa “self-administered” territory, controlled by the United Wa State Army in Shan State, whereby Tatmadaw troops would be mainly based in urban areas while negotiations took place. The NMSP responded by trying to gain time, saying that the party wanted to see how the peace process developed rather than signing an agreement at the first moment. At the second meeting, the SLORC government came up with a claim that they would only agree to 50% of the proposals made by the NMSP in the discussions. Following the third meeting, the negotiation process then stalled for one year after the SLORC government sought to bargain down to only 25% of NMSP proposals being covered in the agreement. Eventually, compromise was achieved, and 14 of the different proposals made by the two sides were included in the final agreement. These have never been made public.2
Among a number of topics that were negotiated, these were the main agreements reached: to release people who had been convicted under article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act for having contact with the NMSP; to exchange deserters from each side; to refrain from forced labour, forced portering, human rights violations and imposing informal taxation on civilians; to allow public gatherings and the assembly of Mon people for literacy and cultural purposes; to allow Mon national schools to teach Mon literature; to develop cooperation between the NMSP education department and government schools; to allow 10th grade students from Mon national schools to take the matriculation exam of government schools; and to allow Mon monks to take their exams in the Mon language.
According to NMSP record-keepers, these agreements were not written up as a bilateral agreement that was intended to be signed in front of witnesses. Rather, the NMSP general secretary Nai Rot Sa and the Southeast Regional commander General Ket Sein represented the two sides at the ceasefire ceremony in the Aung San Hall on 29 June. As such, the NMSP record-keepers say that the ceasefire was in the form of what was called a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” which, they believe, just sufficed in form as a letter of commitment.
The SLORC government provided monthly support in regular fashion to the liaison offices of the NMSP during the early days of ceasefire period. The NMSP was sufficiently supported with rice and fuel, including cash support that started from 25 lakhs contributed through liaison offices and up to 50 lakhs for the central committee.
One of the retired NMSP personnel who served at the Public Communications and Mobilization Department of the party recalled that they considered “it would be more effective for the Mon national movement if we could join closer to the Mon people through building public relationships in urban settings rather than through armed struggle in the forests.” At the time, many Mon people still hoped that the NMSP would defeat the military government and achieve national liberation. Support, however, from the government declined rapidly from 2003 until it completely dried up in 2004. On the government side, this was directly correlated with the dissolution of the Military Intelligence Service that was led by General Khin Nyunt. As a result, the NMSP experienced increasing difficulties in conducting its daily affairs and movements.
In the meantime, NMSP liaison officers said that there was continuing contradiction between ceasefire commitments and the actual implementation of the agreement. Following the ceasefire, students of Mon national schools under the NMSP Education Department were able to enroll for the first time for the matriculation exam in 1996. But, in terms of remuneration and subsidies to teachers, the functioning of the education mechanism under the Mon National Education Committee (MNEC) needed to rely upon international support, a situation that continues until the present day.
Populations from internally-displaced person (IDP) villages in NMSP-controlled areas were also supported by international humanitarian aid that was channeled through the Mon Relief and Development Committee (MRDC). Similarly, the Mon National Health Committee (MNHC) provided health services to communities in the Mon region with international aid for a number of years. Until the present, the MNEC and MNHC have been able to maintain offices in Mawlamyine, the capital city of Mon State. Since 2011, in addition to cross-border aid, they have had better coordination with international aid organizations working inside the country, which means they have better opportunities for access to international support.
The Mon public has fluctuated between the high tides and low tides of both good and bad since the ceasefire agreement. From the bad point of view, human rights violations committed against civilians were at record-breaking levels when government troops moved in to settle and increase their domination in Mon areas. Such problems were not due to the wrongdoing of NMSP officers. During late 1995, there were reinforcements of more than 20 battalions in Ye and Thanbyuzayat townships in Mon State where the majority population is ethnic Mon. The government established new army garrisons along the Mawlamyine-Dawei union highway. At the time, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland reported the construction of several military bases on lands forcibly confiscated from the local people. As a result, many Mon people became migrant workers on the other side of the Thai border when they became jobless after losing their lands.
Soldiers of those newly-expanded battalions were perpetrators of many forms of serious human rights violation in southern Mon State. A considerable number of cases of rape and gender-based violence were recorded in villages in Ye township that were committed by government soldiers against Mon women. Some of the local residents criticized the NMSP for being unable to prevent this and protect them against human rights violations. Previously, these areas had an active presence of NMSP troops among the general public, who acted as a barrier against government troops committing such appalling acts against local communities. Here people helped support each other peacefully prior to the 1995 ceasefire. After its agreement, local mobilization in rural settings became very thin, although the NMSP was able to set up liaison offices in urban areas according to ceasefire commitments agreed between the two parties. People who personally endured these bitter sufferings said that civilians had to withstand all these trials and tribulations incited by armed soldiers even though there was no more fighting in the ceasefire region.
Following the ceasefire, the NMSP persistently demanded the start of political dialogue. The NMSP initially attended sessions of the government-organised National Convention as an official delegate to draw up a new constitution. But in 2004 this position was relegated to observer status. Subsequently, the NMSP rejected the 2008 constitution and also declined pressure from the military government to transform into a militia (pyithusit) or Border Guard Force during 2009. The ceasefire agreement then nearly came to an end after the 2010 general election, but it was later retained as a bilateral agreement at the union level on 1 February 2012 with the new quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein.
The 2012 agreement was, in essence, an amended or updated version of the 1995 agreement, and there were no new national or political demands that were included. But the union level treaty demarcated 19 areas for military positions and extended the number of liaison offices to seven, together with three commercial offices. The NMSP then became a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in February 2018 under the successor government of the National League for Democracy that assumed office in 2016.
Following this new agreement, a Mon “national dialogue” took place in May 2018 as part of a joint effort by the NMSP together with Mon political parties, Mon civil society organisations and the Mon public. The dialogue resulted in papers for different thematic areas, including politics, social affairs, economics, land and natural resources. These papers are widely seen as policy recommendations that are truly based on the desires and interests of the Mon people. Unfortunately, it seems that only points regarded as fitting into the 2008 constitution and existing laws have been subsequently accepted when submitted to peace conferences and meetings. This includes both the NCA and 21st Century Panglong Conference.
The future remains uncertain. On this anniversary day, it therefore seems apt to finish with the perspectives of two eyewitness actors. According to a former NMSP member:
“The peace process is more like a long-term project planned by the Myanmar government. The government is intentionally trying to prolong the peace process. A peace deal could be made within a maximum time of one month if a person has a sincere will. The Union Government already knows what ethnic nationalities are demanding and what they want. It could be done at any time if you have true will. But they just keep delaying as they don’t want to conclude it so soon. They deliberately make ethnic forces linger outside the national circle. They bring them to different countries for exchange visits and make them attend different conferences in and outside the country. They have forgotten what has already been agreed and they always avoid implementing agreements. And they never say what they want, and they mix everything up for further complication. Today I see the NMSP is trying to be part of a puzzle that will be never resolved.”
Similar caution was expressed in an interview about the NMSP with an editor of the Mon News Agency who said:
“The strength of party members and the Mon National Liberation Army is physically falling at this point. There were 7000 active combatants 25 years ago. One battalion had a strength of 500 soldiers but now it is around 100. There are only around 700 soldiers remaining in total. But there are some reserved forces also trained. The financial strength was weak in the past and this still remains the situation. Everyone wants their party to be in a stronger position. Some have resigned when their personal circumstances held them back. If they want their mobilization to be strong, the party should focus on public relations-building either through administrative means or direct contact with the people in local communities. The party should also be cautious in taking steps to prevent coercive behavior when engaging with the public.
Looking to the future, NMSP should review and update its constitution and should find ways to involve educated youths and outsiders, not as party members but as staff for party-related work. Some of the patrons are also struggling to catch up with the current age of information technology in timely fashion. Weak access to information may result in a lack of capacity to build counter arguments that are concerned with political strategies. Over the years, they became used to delays and slow in whatever they are doing. There has been always the lack of a roadmap for political negotiations or dialogue in previous ceasefire negotiations, and in the current peace process no specific timeframe is included. There is also no precondition or agreement between the parties on when the process will conclude and how they will get a peace deal. Literally, there is no tentative deadline for the peace process. All parties involved should therefore focus on developing a political roadmap first in order to achieve a successful peace process.”
It is generally considered that the NMSP, which relies heavily on the support of the Mon public and Mon monks, is an armed organization that is not built on firepower but largely focuses on nationality politics. In the history of armed resistance, it is said that the birth of the NMSP originates directly from the revolutionary spirit of the Mon people. The rights of the Mon people were denied in the early day of independence from Great Britain after 1948, causing a number of Mon national movements to emerge and grow stronger.
The very first All Mon Conference was called at Pha Auk village, near to Mawlamyine, in April 1947. The conference agreed a number of resolutions. Three, in particular, stood out: to achieve a Mon State; to establish a Mon National Defence Organization to protect the security of the Mon people; and to abolish a land tenancy act that undermined the interests of the Mon people.
Based upon this resolution, leaders of the Mon national movement started a revolutionary journey that led in 1952 to the establishment of the Mon People Front (MPF). Under an “Arms for Democracy” agreement with prime minister U Nu, on 23 July 1958 the MPF handed over its weapons in a public ceremony in Mawlamyine and transformed from a policy of armed resistance to parliamentary politics. One leader Nai Shwe Kyin, however, did not agree and, together with a close group of supporters, established the NMSP as a new movement on 20 July. Nai Shwe Kyin became the party’s first chairman. Since this time, the NMSP has acted as the “second generation” of the Mon armed struggle until the present day.
Looking back from today, the 25th anniversary of the 1995 ceasefire marks an opportune moment to review the origin of the NMSP and its political progress. At the same time, it is also an appropriate moment to reflect on whether the outcomes are still resonant with the resolutions of the first All Mon Conference held back in 1947. These resolutions continue to serve as the basis for the political demands of the Mon nationality movement. During the present time of national transition, all aspects of the 1995 ceasefire and post-independence history should come under careful review.
Sawor Mon is an activist in southern Myanmar working in the fields of human rights and land rights for the past ten years. He is presently a coordinator for the Mon Region Land Policy Affairs Committee. He is also researching investments and conducts analyses for ethnic nationality communities based upon federal land policy recommendations.This commentary is based upon interviews conducted with members and former members of the NMSP, Mon monks and leaders of civil society organisations for an analysis of the 1995 ceasefire.
1 The KNU did not, in fact, come to a ceasefire agreement, although it did subsequently have unsuccessful peace talks. During 1994, a Democratic Karen Buddhist Army broke away from the KNU in the Hpa’an area and made a ceasefire with the government. Another NMSP ally on the Thailand border, the Karenni National Progressive Party made a ceasefire in March 1995, but this quickly broke down.
2 It is not known what percentage of the proposals by the two sides these 14 agreements mark.