A Commentary by Mi Kamoon
The 29th of June marks the 25th anniversary of the ceasefire by the New Mon State Party with the then military government of the State Law and Order Restoration Council. Twenty-fire years later, the NMSP is still in ceasefire with the government of the National League for Democracy today, but the peace process in the country has begun to stall badly.
The New Mon State Party (NMSP) signed a ceasefire (known as the “return to the light”) with the military government of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) on 29 June 1995. The term “return to the light” assumes that the demands for national equality and self-determination by the NMSP were illegal in the view of the SLORC regime, and hence government officers claimed that the NMSP had “returned to the light” by agreeing to the ceasefire. From my viewpoint, the NMSP was never in the dark as an outlaw. I would prefer to say that the movement just stepped forward into the light. However, after being in the era of peace-building for 25 years now, I am not sure where we currently are, as we cannot find the light yet. We are not sure whether we are in the light or in the dark. This is a question that can be best answered by leaders involved in the peace process, those who received the benefits, and the Mon public who bear the brunt of the ceasefire consequences and the peace agreement.
There are words that the Mon people welcome to hear on every Mon National Day. The ultimate goal of the Mon people is to restore the rights of self-determination, with greater autonomy, and to establish a Federal Union. The situation of the Mon people, however, has remained the same for 25 years now, and this is not right. Until the present, the Mon people are not the ones who decide their destiny but successive governments at the national centre.
The NMSP returned into the so-called “legal fold” in 1995, but Mon refugees and internally displaced persons have had to flee again several times in terror clutching handfuls of personal belongings. Despite the 1995 ceasefire, this happened again in 2010. In 2008 the military government adopted a new constitution, and the following year sought to force the NMSP to transform into a Border Guard Force in 2009. This caused great uncertainty for Mon civilians in NMSP-controlled areas who were living on the doorstep of war. Since this time, fear and insecurity have remained the companions of the Mon people until the present day.
On the 25th anniversary of the NMSP ceasefire, it therefore often feels that the only development in the Mon region has been a massive reinforcement and occupation by government troops. This, in turn, has led to serious land-grabbing from local residents, turning them into landless migrant workers. There is still gunfire here and there on different occasions, and many people still live in a state of anxiety. Territories controlled by the NMSP have been shrinking all the time. The Khawzar, Magyi and Ann Din areas were once under NMSP administration as well as coastal areas that are the lifeblood of the Mon people. Today they are under the occupation of outsiders.
The natural environment and its precious resources are the assets of the Mon people. But, as these incursions happen, their depletion is taking life away piece by piece. The Mon national goal still remains in the dark even though 25 years have passed since the ceasefire. A long road of endeavor still lies ahead. The 29th June has become just a memorial day. As a Mon national, the question of whether there have been more positive or negative impacts from the ceasefire is one that keeps bothering me as I have witnessed more negatives during my life.
The major challenge is that the path to the resolution of the root causes of armed conflict has yet to be realized. It still remains a dream even though we claim the right of self-determination and greater autonomy on every Mon National Day. Ethnic nationalities once believed that ceasefires and a peace process would lead them to building a Federal Union together. But many questions are yet to be answered. “Why are fighting, negotiation and dialogue still continuing for 25 years?” “Why are we not able to achieve the goal of establishing a Federal Union?”
Each and every citizen of Myanmar should reconsider these questions very earnestly. Ad-hoc negotiations and dialogue always follow whenever there is an outbreak of conflict. In the meantime, the political path is fading away even while we are still walking upon it.
The economy of the Mon region is still entrapped in the dark. Fresh agricultural products are heavily reliant on just one source – rubber – without any viable options. Its symbolism can be seen as soon as you cross the Sittaung bridge entrance to the Mon State. We have an abundance of raw rubber but lack the technology to process it into fine products. Rubber farmers are in a difficult situation. But they have no access to alternative markets so just trade the product in raw form in the Mon region. As a result, Mon people use the metaphor of “White Gold” to describe rubber.
Marine fisheries and other livelihoods in the coastal region also do not have a viable access to markets. The NMSP has no jurisdiction or control over these businesses even though they are taking place under the party’s nose. Many companies have been flocking into the Mon region recently in the name of development, but with very little or no protection for the interests of the local people. Development is claimed but it is not clear for whom. Overexploitation is occurring in both the land and marine sectors. Natural resources are finite but, with the current speed of extraction, no time is being left for regeneration.
In this vacuum, remittances by overseas migrant workers have become part of the critical life support for the Mon region. They are sacrificing themselves for the wellbeing of their families and Mon society as a whole, but this does not provide any long-term guarantees for the lives of the Mon people. The national government is the absolute owner and manager of all natural resources under the 2008 constitution. So I always have a question in mind: “Is the natural heritage left behind by our Mon ancestors being stolen away?”
The ceasefire journey has brought us to the 25th year anniversary, but the goal that we have dreamed of for so long is yet to be reached. Therefore the relationship of the NMSP with the public in urban settings is still very fragile. Very few city people have developed an interest in the ceasefire or peace process as they already live in difficult positions in terms of their interests and livelihoods.
Displaced people have many hesitations after leaving their villages of origin. They have nowhere to return to and do not know whether they should call the temporary shelters they have been living in a home or not. This has been continuing for 25 years. Many children born during the early stages of the ceasefire have married and have now extended their families. So the future for this generation is desperate with no guarantees of a secure life. The ceasefire could break down again at any time in the future if there is no meaningful political dialogue and settlement. The conflicts during 1990 to 1995, especially, resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of internally-displaced persons (IDPs). Most of them cannot return home because their villages of origin no longer exist or have already been inhabited by secondary occupants for 25 years. The majority of the IDPs now have refuge in settlement areas established by the NMSP. But their livelihoods are very difficult as these territories are mostly remote, mountainous and have very poor access to transportation.
In these displaced areas, there is no local job opportunity available even if the people have a strong will for work and many of them have experience as migrant workers in neighboring Thailand. Many youths drop out from school in order to support the wellbeing and livelihoods of their families. But they face additional difficulties because of poor transportation, especially in the rainy season, while trying to meet their employment, health and educational needs.
Many people have now departed whilst still dreaming for a lasting peace to materialize at some stage. Gunfire is still around us and we also remain in fear. One IDP staying in a local IDP camp shared their feelings:
“We have no land to return even though we desperately want to. We want to stay where we are right now and wish that the NMSP is able to achieve a sustainable peace agreement. We want our children to be able to study well at school and our areas to be developed when there is a lasting peace.”
Civilians are still vulnerable to gunshots at any time even though the ceasefire agreement has been signed. The power of the country has been completely concentrated in the hands of the armed forces since the era of the SLORC government and its State Peace and Development Council successor. Conflict is still continuing no matter that time has changed, and the number of IDPs is still being reported as increasing. The safety and security of the public remain great concerns as fighting has persisted, even while the peace process is continuing, under both the presidency of U Thein Sein from 2011 to 2016 and under the National League for Democracy (NLD) from 2016 up until the present.
Meanwhile the NMSP has seen little or no share of the profits from investment projects that are increasing in Mon State. Civilians therefore always worry about the direction of the peace process. A commonly-held view was summarized as follows:
“We want the NMSP and the government to enter into a long-lasting peace as we are still living in fear even after a ceasefire agreement was signed. We are afraid to run again if the ceasefire is broken again in the near future. We ran in the past. We don’t want to run anymore.”
Agriculture and farming are the lifeblood not only of the Mon people but also for all ethnic nationalities in Myanmar. Therefore the security of housing and land is always a top priority. The Mon people utilize the land inherited from their ancestors as a means of livelihood. Widespread land grabbing and confiscation, however, keep occurring in the country no matter which government comes into power. This has continued until the present day under both the Thein Sein and NLD governments. Land confiscated in the name of national security has not been returned to the original owners even after the ceasefire agreement was signed. Land grabbing has destroyed and scattered so many families and lives over the years.
Expectation was high that confiscated land could be reclaimed when the NMSP signed the ceasefire agreement with the national government. But those expectations silently faded away. Many people also thought of prosperity overnight when they heard about new developments. For example, the Yetagun and Yadana gas pipelines visibly passed through the houses and lands of Mon people but with zero benefit to politics and society. There were only three battalions in the area before the 1995 ceasefire but this was increased up to 20 battalions by 2000. Many of these territories the NMSP had demarcated as reserved and protected forests in its ceasefire map with the government. But now these areas are used for orchards and farming, storing up environmental problems over land use and ownership in the future.
Real peace is need not only for the people in Mon State but also for all communities and nationalities in other states and regions in the country. We have all been affected by the decades-long civil war. It is very important that the heritage from our ancestors helps us to achieve a common platform today. We want future generations to start their journey with full strength and abilities.
Mi Kamoon grew up in a village in Ye township. She has been working on community development and the right to land for ethnic nationality peoples since 2006. She has carried out research on customary tenure in different parts of the country. She currently works for the Myanmar Programme of the Transnational Institute.