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Analyses & Reports
The Story of Little Monland: from war to peace
By PON NYA MON | November 11th, 2014 |
In January 2014, I made my first visit back to my native village in Burma, after living in the U.S. and Thailand for over twenty-five years; there have been a lot of changes in the village in twenty-five years. My village has been transformed from a war-torn village to being peaceful and developed; from an occupied village to a free one. The village is located in southern Burma, approximately thirty miles southeast of Mudon Town, Mon State. It is under New Mon State Party (NMSP) control, and free from the Burmese government’s rule and Burmese military occupation. If Mon people were to have an autonomous state, this is what it would be like, a state with self-rule and self-determination. Thus, my village should be named “Little Monland”. As with other parts of Burma, Little Monland has been through periods of war, peace, and development.
History and geography of Little Monland
Little Monland, my native home, is comprised of four villages; Day Htaung, Kaw Palort, Kaw Don Mareang, and Hla Pop, which are all positioned next to each other. They are located in southern Burma, under the NMSP’s Moulmein District administration. There are over forty Mon villages in the region, all of which are under NMSP administration. Of those villages, Little Monland is the biggest, as it is comprised of four villages.
Little Monland sits on the foot of a long mountain range, and most people living there originally migrated from Mudon town or Mudon Township, Mon State, over 100 years ago to escape British oppression. Little Monland is also located between two rivers, known in Mon as the “region between two rivers”. As the region is located between two rivers, running from south to north, Little Monland has been known as a place free from oppression. However, after Burma gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, the region became a war zone as both Burmese army and Mon revolutionary armed groups stationed their bases there. The region would not see peace again until 1995, when the NMSP signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military government.
Throughout the course of the Mon people’s armed revolutions, Little Monland was used as a base for both Mon and Burmese armies. Fighting between the Mon National Liberation Army and the Burmese army increased, and Little Monland became deserted as many people moved out of the region to escape the fighting and human rights violations. The region finally saw peace with the 1995 ceasefire agreement; however, development has only begun to come to the region in recent years. Today, people in Little Monland live free from human rights violations and war, and manage their own affairs without interference from the Burmese government and army; however, the region is still on the Burmese government’s blacklist, which bars the people of Little Monland from electing representatives to Burma’s regional or national parliaments.
War Zone –
Following Burma’s independence in 1948, Little Monland became a strategically important area for both Mon revolutionary armed groups and the Burmese army. As Little Monland is not only the largest village in the region, but also located on the foot of a long mountain range, Mon revolutionary armed groups were able to base their troops in the mountain and monitor the Burmese army’s activities when it entered the area.
Little Monland is also located between two rivers, which impeded the Burmese army’s ability to easily reach the area during wartime. With Mon revolutionary armed group based in the area, it became strategically important for the Burmese army to control Little Monland, in order to drive our Mon revolutionary armed groups’ activities in the region.
Prior to Burma’s independence, Little Monland was able to enjoy peace because it was not directly controlled by British or Japanese rule. Although the Japanese army passed through the region during the Japanese occupation of Burma from 1942 to 1945, the Japanese had never settled its bases there. After Burma gained independence, however, the area became a warzone.
Immediately following independence, Mon people began their fight for the recognition of political and cultural rights from the central government. The Mon National Defense Organization (NMDO) was formed under Mon People’s Front (MPF) leadership, and joined Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) forces in their fight against the central government. The NMDO and KNDO briefly occupied Moulmein, the current capital of Mon State, however, they could not resist Burmese army offensives, and Mon revolutionary armed groups withdrew their forces from Moulmein to Little Monland and nearby Mon villages.
Various Mon revolutionary armed groups, including the MPF, the Bo Ba Ohm, and the New Mon State Party (NMSP), stationed their bases in Little Monland throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In response to their presence in the area, the Burmese army employed constant attacks, ultimately burning three of Little Monland’s four villages to the ground in 1954. Although the MPF signed a peace agreement with the Burmese army in 1958, other Mon groups, such as Bo Ba Ohm, filled the MPF’s void in the armed struggle. Concurrently, Nai Shwe Kyin used Little Monland as a base to regroup MPF members who did not surrender to the government, to form the NMSP. Following the establishment of the party, the NMSP moved its headquarters to Three Pagoda Pass, however, Little Monland continued to supply financial and material support to the NMSP, and some NMSP members continued to live in Little Monland with their families.
Recognizing the region’s importance to the NMSP, the Burmese army took over Little Monland in 1972, and moved its base there. In 1989, as the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), the armed wing of the NMSP, gained momentum in the region, the Burmese army abandoned their base and left the region. The MNLA took control of the region as soon as the Burmese army left and, once again, the Burmese army returned in efforts to retake the area. The Burmese army did not succeed, as the MNLA used Little Monland’s mountain to monitor military activities and launch attacks from the top of the mountain. Eventually, the Burmese army left the area.
Living under fears
Fears became a normal part of life for the people of Little Monland; as the MNLA often attacked the Burmese army’s Little Monland military base, people were often in hiding. Children were instructed how to hide from fighting and people dug trenches under their houses or in their backyards to hide from gunfights. The temple walls were reinforced with thick bricks so people could use them to hide from the fighting. For example, a temple near my childhood school was secured with thick brick walls so that bullets were not able to penetrate; when fighting broke out, it became a regular hiding place for people who lived nearby.
People also hid near the foot of the mountain which provided a secure place, safe from bullets and mortars. Parents always encouraged their children to eat fast during dinner so that, if fighting occurred, they would not have starved. When dogs could be heard barking throughout the night, people slept in the trenches or nearby temples because they knew that the NMLA was about to launch an attack on the Burmese army’s military base. As my childhood school was located near the temple with the thick brick walls, we were instructed to run to the temple for hiding if fighting broke out. The Burmese military base was built in the middle of three villages, so whenever fighting broke out, people suffered.
In the early 1980s, the MNLA ordered the evacuation of Little Monland because the group planned to take over the Burmese military base. Most people moved out of Little Monland temporarily, taking refuge in nearby villages. As the Burmese army heard about the plan, it sent reinforcements; hundreds of Burmese soldiers arrived within a week to protect their base. In the end, the MNLA gave up the plan and did not launch the attack but, since the people had fled the area, the Burmese army enjoyed plundering villagers’ livestock and other properties.
Human right violations –
Like Mon living in other parts of Monland, the people of Little Monland suffered from various types of human rights violations during Burma’s civil war. People were constantly accused of being rebel supporters because Mon revolutionary armed groups used Little Monland as their base; some were killed and many were tortured for being accused of supporting Mon armed groups. Some were also tortured and killed by Mon revolutionary armed groups because they were accused of acting as spies for the Burmese army.
Most adult males living in Little Monland were arrested, at least once, for military porters to carry military supplies and ammunitions. Women were also arrested or detained if the Burmese army could not find the men. Whenever the Burmese army launched a military offensive against the Mon armed groups in the region, it would stop in Little Monland to request the military base there to arrange for porters. The military base then issued orders to Little Monland administrators to gather military porters. The village administrators often refused their orders, and the Burmese army had to arrange for porters itself, and did so by patrolling through villages, arresting adult males. Another common human rights violation committed by the Burmese army involved regular forced labor, wherein the army forced each adult male to serve as forced labor at the military base on a rotational basis. If a man refused to serve, he would be tortured and made to pay a fine.
Holding the position of village administrator in Little Monland was very risky, because they had to serve the needs of both the Burmese army and Mon revolutionary armed groups. In order to accommodate both groups’ needs, they had to be extremely diplomatic; otherwise, they would be killed or tortured by either group. For example, one former administrator explained that when he served as administrator, he and his council were ordered to meet with the NMLA in a nearby village. When the Burmese army heard about the meeting, the Burmese army’s captain was so angry, he threatened to punish the whole administrative council. Indeed, one administrator was very diplomatic; he met with the captain and explained the reasons of their meeting with the MNLA, while the others hid on the outskirts of Little Monland. Finally, the captain calmed down, and the rest of the administrators were able to return to their homes.
When the Burmese army attempted to retake Little Monland in 1989, the army committed increasing numbers of human rights abuse. Every time the Burmese army stationed in Little Monland, various human rights violations were committed; one administrator was tortured to death in the early 1990s, and some villagers are still missing today.
From war to peace
The NMSP signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military government in 1995, brining Little Monland under NMSP control and Moulmein District administration. Little Monland, and other villages in the region, saw peace for the first time in fifty years. Although the ceasefire agreement between the NMSP and Burmese government did not bring any political solutions to Burma, it did bring peace to the region. The region is now free from killing, portering, forced labor, rape, and other types of human rights abuse.
After suffering from many decades of civil war, Little Monland begins to be rebuilt; displaced persons have moved back to Little Monland; road, schools, and businesses have been rebuilt without any outside help. One village elder expressed that he had never seen his kind of peace in his life. He is 94 years old, and his family had moved from Mudon town when he was young to escape British oppression. He has lived under many rulers; the British, Japanese, Burman and Mon. He was glad to be alive to see this kind of peace, but he felt so sorry for those who have passed away and are not able to see this kind of peace. The man proudly pointed out that now, the people of Little Monland did not need to lock their doors at night, and did not worry about burglaries and armed robberies.
Young people under the age of twenty do not even know how to hide from bullets if the fighting happens; they don’t even know what war looks like. Their dreams are to have a better education and work in foreign countries. People enjoy their daily lives with development works, making merits, and business activities; they no longer suffer from the Burmese army’s oppression and human rights abuses.
Politics and governance –
Now, Little Monland is under NMSP administration, with NMSP’s District Office located just a couple miles from Little Monland. Village administrators are required to report to the NMSP Township Office, and any crimes or legal matters must be handled by NMSP Township Administration. If township administration is not able to handle a case, it will be brought to the NMSP District Office; if the District Office cannot handle the case, it will be brought to the NMSP Central Office at NMSP Headquarters.
People in Little Monland pay more attention to politics of the NMSP Central Office, than they do politics in Nay Pyi Daw, because politics in the NMSP Central Office directly impact their lives. For instance, the township and district administrators are selected by the NMSP Central Office, and people are interested in who will be their next township and district administrators. More often than not, people in Little Monland discuss the governance of NMSP township, district, and central administrations, rather than that of the Burmese government in Nay Pyi Daw; in other words, people do not care who the president of Burma is, but they do care who will be their next township and district administrators. NMSP township and district administrators are rotated regularly by the Central Office to avoid corruption and abuse of power; since people cannot elect their township and district administrators, they have no choice but to accept whoever will be assigned to those positions but the NMSP Central Office.
Like citizens in other countries, residents in Little Monland pay taxes to their government; the NMSP collects household tax and business tax, as well as trade taxes from traders who pass through their checkpoints. In order to strengthen civil society in Little Monland, youth, veteran, and medical associations have been formed under the guidance of NMSP local offices. Although Little Monland is self-ruled by the Mon, it is still a one party political system, which is the NMSP; however, people in Little Monland enjoy the right to elect their respective village administrators independently and democratically. On the other hand, the region remains on the Burmese government’s black list, and as such, people in Little Monland cannot participate in Burma’s general election, nor can they elect their own representatives to national and regional parliaments.
From peace to Development
Since signing a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 1995, the NMSP has been working with the government to develop the areas it controls, however, the government has provided minimal support. In recent years, people in the region came together to form a Development Committee, which has been raising funds for development projects in the region. A construction company has also recently been formed in order to build roads, bridges, and schools in the region. As people become better off economically, they need better roads, education, and healthcare.
Now, Little Monland’s dirt streets have been transformed to concrete streets, and a supermarket has been built. Local entrepreneurs provide households electricity daily from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm, and from 4:00 am to 6:00 am; residents can watch TV now, which they could not do before. Although the Burmese government and International Non-Profit Organizations (INGOs) have been claiming to support development in conflict affected areas, they have only provided minimal support to the region, as the regional Burmese government only allows INGOs to support government projects, not private projects. For instance, the Mon National Education Committee requested funding from an INGO to build three Mon national schools in the region; although the INGO wanted to support the project, it could not because the government’s policies did not allow for INGOs to support non-governmental projects.
After suffering many decades of civil war, the economy of Little Monland has deteriorated. By 1995, Little Monland had become deserted, as many people had moved out of the area. During the war, people had survived on subsistence rice farming, but after the war the economy began to be revitalized, and people are now better off economically. Now, three types of economies can be found in the region; rubber farming, trade work, and the export of labor to foreign countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.
The economy in Little Monland is now moving from subsistence farming to rubber plantations and trades. When the price of rubber skyrocketed in 2007 to $1.50 per pound, farmers transformed their farmland to rubber plantation; rubber trees are everywhere in Little Monland and farmland is rarely seen these days. Although Little Monland is isolated from major world trade zones, the region was also affected by the global economic recession in the mid-2000s. When the world rubber price peaked in 2007, people were borrowing high interest loans to purchase rubber plantations for a quick profit. The average annual interest rate in Little Monland was over 40%, and as the rubber price fell, some borrowers defaulted on their loans as they were not able to pay. At the same time, however, many people in Little Monland were able to make fortunes on the high price of rubber.
As trade routes opened from Three Pagoda Pass to Little Monland, people began trading goods from Thailand to Burma, and vice versa. People also traded commodities, namely natural rubber from Little Monland to nearby towns such as Mudon and Moulmein, in Mon State. Since Little Monland is located in the center of the region, it has also become a commercial zone, as villagers from nearby villages trade and sell their goods in Little Monland’s supermarket, as well as purchasing goods from Little Monland’s market.
Transportation has been transformed in Little Monland, from ox-carts to motorcycles and motor vehicles. Previously, people had depended on ox-carts for transportation, and now they use motor vehicles to transport goods from one place to another. Most vehicle owners do not register their motor vehicles with the Burmese government, registering them, rather, with the local NMSP office. Since their vehicles are not registered with the Burmese government, occasionally they have to pay fines to Burmese motorists when they leave NMSP controlled areas in order to operate their vehicles in government controlled areas. As traders pass through NMSP and Karen armed group controlled areas, they have to pay taxes to these groups. There are four checkpoints located between Little Monland and Mudon Town, two NMSP and two Karen armed groups’ checkpoints; traders must pay a tax at each checkpoint.
Another growing economy is the export of laborers to foreign countries, with at least one person from almost every household in Little Monland working in a foreign country. Exporting labor to foreign countries has become a major source of income for Little Monland, as workers in foreign countries regularly send money back home.
Since people do not trust Burma’s banking system, farmers invest their savings into their land and rubber plantations. As a result, land prices have increase rapidly in Little Monland.
Education in Little Monland has also been improved, with the system upgraded from middle school education to high school education. Now, many people have graduated from high school and university. In the late 1980s, there were only a few high school graduates in the whole of Little Monland, let alone university graduates. These days, nearly every household has a high school graduate.
Due to war, people in Little Monland suffered from a lack of access to good education. During the war, even though there were schools, there were not enough teachers because teachers from other towns or villages did not want to come teach in the area. Also, since there were not many high school or college graduates, Little Monland was not able to produce its own teachers. Today, Little Monland has four primary schools and one high school, and almost all primary school and middle school teachers are natives of Little Monland; only high school teachers are brought in from other towns or villages.
Since Little Monland is located in a NMSP-controlled area, the educational system is jointly administered by the NMSP and the Burmese government. As the educational system is not fully controlled by the Burmese government, it has been known as a mixed system educational system, under which Mon language is taught as a subject at the primary school level. Mon language teachers are paid by the Mon National Education Committee, while teachers of the other subjects are paid by the Burmese government.
Since the schools are located in a NMSP controlled-area, Little Monland schools cannot promote any government policies to their students, and must operate solely for an educational purpose. If any government policies or propaganda are attached to lessons, the school principals could be removed, or warned by the NMSP local office. For example, at one Mon National Day celebration, when a high school principal gave a speech embracing Burman kings such as Anoratha and Aung Ze Ya, the principal’s speech was interrupted and stopped by local NMSP officials. The principal was given a warning not to embrace the government’s propaganda again because, for the Mon, Burman kings are viewed as invaders of their homeland, not heroes like the Burmese government attempts to portray.
A Mon National High School is located not far from Little Monland; it is administered by the Mon National Education Committee, and has been using the Mon language as a medium language. Some of Little Monland’s parents also send their children to that school.
Future of Little Monland
The future of Little Monland is uncertain and depends on the result of the NMSP’s political negotiation with the Burmese government.If negotiations go well, the NMSP will be transformed to a political party, and the administration of NMSP-controlled areas will be handed over to the future federal government. Little Monland will then join the federation of Burma and will elect their representatives to national and regional governments. However, if the negotiations do not go well Little Monland will return to war, which may last another generation.
Pon Nya Mon is a Research fellow at the Salween Institute (www.salweeninstitute.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally appeared in the Independent Mon News Agency (IMNA) and can retrieved here.