Matthew J Walton looks at the controversy over a bridge in Mon State.
The National League for Democracy is the party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This is clear. In certain ways, this also makes it the party of General Aung San, or at least, of his legacy. While it might seem to be of great political benefit for a party to be connected to its country’s founding hero (especially when its main rival is prominently associated with decades of repressive military rule), the NLD seems, contrary to expectations, to be able to turn its Bogyoke connections into a liability.
At issue is the name of a bridge in Mon State being built over the Thanlwin (Salween) River, connecting Mawlamyine with the neighbouring township of Chaungzone. It is a project funded by the central government that should be completed by the end of March. That it has sparked controversy is the most recent evidence that the ruling NLD is insistent on carrying out actions that alienate (or at least annoy) Myanmar’s ethnically diverse population, despite its repeated promises to prioritise national reconciliation.
In this case, the national government has barrelled forward with its plans to name the bridge after General Aung San. This is despite strong indications from local organisations that they preferred another name and a statement from a Mon State minister that the state government had decided not to use the name for the bridge. Thousands have been protesting the name, with Mon groups joined by representatives of other ethnic groups. Local suggestions have included “Yamanya” (“Mon State” in Mon language) or “Salween Bridge.”
The comments made by the new Mon State Chief Minister, Dr Aye Zan (an NLD loyalist who was first elected in 1990 and was recently tapped by President U Htin Kyaw to lead the state after the resignation of the previous Chief Minister) reflect the standard Burman-oriented history of the country’s founding. He said that local residents should be “proud” of the name because, if General Aung San had not brought together different ethnic groups from Ministerial Burma and the Frontier Areas at the 1947 Panglong Conference, there would be no Myanmar today. This is a striking remark from a leader of one of the ethnic groups that had no representation at Panglong because the area that would become Mon State was within Ministerial Burma, which was represented solely by the Burman-dominated Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL).
This is not the place to engage in a more detailed consideration of General Aung San’s complicated place in Myanmar’s history, but that must also be part of the re-consideration of the country’s founding myths. What does it signify that many of the country’s ethnic groups were not present at Panglong, an event that State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continues to insist reflects the absolute unity of its groups, rather than the aspiration for such a condition? What does it mean to celebrate as a national hero and founding father a man who, in addition to helping to convene the Panglong Conference, executed a Karen village head during World War II? How can Myanmar achieve national reconciliation without an honest appraisal of its divisive and exclusionary past?
As Mon activists and politicians have made clear, their rejection of the name is not meant to disrespect General Aung San, but to insist that the bridge be given a name that is more meaningful to the local population. That NLD lawmakers and leaders cannot recognise how insulting and destructive this move is to their professed efforts for national reconciliation is reflective of what I have called “Burman privilege.” Not the same as outright discrimination or prejudice, this theory suggests that, as the majority ethnic group, Burmans enjoy certain benefits or status that accrue to them solely because of their ethnicity—benefits that are not necessarily available to non-Burmans—and furthermore, this privileged position is largely invisible to those who enjoy it daily.
In this case, Burman leaders enjoy the privilege of having most (if not all) of the country’s heroes come from their own ethnic group— privilege that also allows them to ignore the fact that members of other groups might not adopt the same worshipful attitude towards General Aung San. Scholars have documented the ways in which non-Burmans have been excised from the country’s official histories, either taken out completely or rendered in ways that make their ethnic identity peripheral to their contributions. A basic component of national reconciliation will have to be the re-writing of a Myanmar history in which every school child—regardless of ethnicity or religion—can see her or himself. Apparently the much simpler step of just recognising local agency in naming a landmark is even too difficult for the current government.
But maybe this should not be surprising to us. At a recent academic conference focused on Myanmar, a scholar presented a paper that examined a range of complex views held by members of a minority ethnic group on citizenship. In sharing the perspectives of her informants, she related their claims that various cultural elements or prominent individuals had been appropriated by the Burman majority, either as Burman culture, or universalised into “Myanmar” culture. Representatives from the Myanmar government that were attending criticised the paper as divisive and not reflective of the country’s reality. They put forward anecdotes of inter-ethnic marriages as “evidence” that there were no ethnic tensions in the country. Rather than even consider the possibility that some (in fact, many) might feel excluded from the country’s official narrative and history, their knee-jerk reaction was denial. And of course, this attitude preceded the current government.
The former military government tried to explain its massive name change policy in 1989 as both a rejection of Anglicized names imposed during the colonial era and an attempt to “de-ethnicise” the country, by changing the country’s name from “Burma” (too close in sound to the majority Burman or Bamar ethnic group) to “Myanmar” (allegedly a “national” term that would include all of the country’s ethnicities). This was demonstrably false for several reasons: Both terms had been used to describe the country throughout its recent history and both were names for the country in Burmese, the language of the ethnic majority Burmans. The former government’s flimsy reasoning was further belied by the fact that, in enacting name changes around the country it not only changed colonial era names but also changed places that had previously been named in local languages to their Burmese equivalents. The irony of all of this, of course, is that today, in attempting to push forward with giving the bridge a name strongly rejected by an ethnic community, the NLD is continuing in spirit the past Burmanisation process described by so many ethnic activists and scholars, while the small USDP contingent in Parliament was joined by the military bloc (!) in opposing it.
“Bridge-gate” (how I wish we had ready-made names for political scandals in Myanmar like we do in America!) might seem like a minor and unimportant event, a non-scandal ginned up by ethnic activists and spread by an increasingly critical domestic media. I would argue that we ought to see it as yet another small but meaningful moment of ethnic alienation in Myanmar’s ongoing politics of exclusion and assimilation. Perhaps this is one move by the national government that we could attribute to ignorance (of ethnic sentiment or majority privilege) rather than bigotry or incompetence, yet the effects are the same. Without a change in attitude from (Burman) political leaders, national reconciliation in Myanmar will remain an elusive dream.
Matthew J Walton is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Prior to that, he was the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and was a co-founder of Tea Circle. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Buddhism in Myanmar and Burmese Buddhist political thought. He also writes on ethnicity, conflict, and Burmese politics more generally.