LOIKAW — One night in 2012, in the Kayah State capital of Loikaw, a group of ethnic Karenni youths were engaged in clandestine activity.
In advance of Martyrs’ Day, 19 July, they crept around the town putting up posters of General Aung San, the Independence hero assassinated along with eight of his colleagues on that date in 1947. They also cleared the weeds around a stone monument for the nine martyrs in a central park, and 50 youths marched on the street to commemorate them.
Over the last four years, Martyrs’ Day has become a major public event. The veneration of Aung San is being actively promoted by a civilian government led by the man’s daughter, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Formerly, the ruling military suppressed or downplayed the memory of Aung San, fearing it would bolster popular support for their political nemesis, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Karenni youths were making a defiant, and potentially dangerous, act.
However, six years on, the same Karenni youths and local ethnic groups who wish to promote their own histories and heroes are resisting the public veneration of Aung San, whose memory they now see as a vehicle for cultural domination by the ethnic Bamar (Burman) majority in Myanmar.
In July this year, more than 20 local youths were charged with incitement and sedition for demonstrating against the Kayah State government’s plan, announced in February, to use public funds to erect a bronze equestrian statue of Aung San in central Loikaw—one of many being put up across Myanmar, against protests by ethnic minority groups—and for distributing pamphlets about the area’s long history of independence.
The issue, and the way it has been handled since a July 3 protest in Loikaw ended in scuffles with the police, has fed growing tensions between local communities and the NLD-appointed state government. The NLD swept most seats in Kayah State in the 2015 general election, as part of a landslide win nationwide, but locals complain of being neglected by the victorious party.
Both the Union government and the NLD leadership have declined to intervene in, or take responsibility for, the statue controversy, saying it’s up for the state government to resolve it with local communities.
After warning that the army could be called on in the event of future protests, the chief minister appeared to soften on July 23, declaring that responsibility for erecting the statue would be taken out of government control and put in the hands of a committee of community-based organisations. This prompted local youth activists to announce a suspension of protests the next day, though they remain opposed to the statue.
This report examines how the bitter dispute over the statue has been fuelled by ethnic pride in the area’s largely independent history, local perceptions of betrayal by the ruling NLD, and what some see as the unscrupulous ambition of the state’s chief minister.
Protesters rally against the erection of the Aung San statue on 3 July (Pic: Khun Athan)
Past autonomy, present underdevelopment
In June, a group of ethnic-based associations in Kayah State sent an open letter to the state government laying out their objections to the Aung San statue.
It said Aung San had no meaningful ties to the area and visited only once, in 1946, when it was known as the Karenni States. He was then lobbying frontier areas—where ethnic minority populations enjoyed administrative autonomy under British rule—to unify with mainland Burma on Independence. Because successive governments did not honour his promises of equality and autonomy, a statues of him would stoke tensions, they wrote.
The letter mentioned a treaty signed by delegates of the Burmese king Mindon and the British in 1875 that recognised the independence of the five Karenni States, allowing them even greater freedom than other frontier areas during colonial rule. These details were contained in the pamphlets disseminated locally in early July.
On independence in 1948, the Karenni States were joined to form Karenni State. Along with other states named in the 1947 constitution, it was given the right to secede from the Union of Burma after ten years. In 1951, it was renamed Kayah State.
Kayah State is Myanmar’s smallest and least populous state, with almost 290,000 people, less than half the population of the single township of Hlaing Tharyar in Yangon. It remains severely underdeveloped. According to the 2014 national census, only half of all residents have access to electricity, despite the presence of Lawpita hydroelectric dam, which supplies power to a substantial chunk of Myanmar.
Kayah State Chief Minister L Phaung Sho (Kayah State government)
A model civil servant
Kayah State’s 39-year-old chief minister, L Phaung Sho, is a Buddhist of mixed ethnic Kayan and Shan heritage. He was little known, even among politicians and NLD activists, before his ascension to power with the new government in 2016.
He resigned as a government education officer and joined the NLD only months before the November 2015 general election. He won one of two seats in the state parliament for the southern township of Mese, which has little more than 6,000 people, before the NLD leadership handpicked him for the chief minister post.
L Phaung Sho was born in Lawpita Shan village in Loikaw Township, in the north of Kayah State, and went to the University for the Development of the National Races of the Union in Sagaing Region in northwest Myanmar.
The university was founded in 1964 under General Ne Win, who seized power in a military coup d’état two years before that. Since 2012, the university has been administered by the military-controlled Ministry of Border Affairs. All students must first pledge allegiance to the Three National Causes, as defined by the military, and must vow not to get involved with political parties.
Graduating with a Bachelor of Education, he landed a post as assistant district education officer in Mese Township. He earned a good reputation in government circles, as one who diligently followed rules, and was awarded two medals for his service.
According to NLD insiders, who asked to remain anonymous, the secretary of the NLD’s Central Committee for Research and Strategy Studies, U Myo Yan Naung Thein, visited Mese before the 2015 election and found L Phaung Sho a man of great potential.
Myo Yan Naung Thein recommended him to the party, which duly nominated him as a candidate. L Phaung Sho won his state parliament seat gaining 725 out of 1319 votes, beating the USDP candidate with a margin of 461.
Another man, 49-year-old Dr. Aung Kyaw Htay, a former assistant doctor at Loikaw General Hopsital, was then tipped for the chief minister job.
Yet, within days of the election, youth groups and members of ethnic armed groups held a public meeting, which concluded that the chief minister should be a local ethnic person. Aung Kyaw Htay is an ethnic Kayin, or Karen, from Kawhmu Township in Yangon.
They requested state-level NLD leaders to relay this decision to Aung San Suu Kyi, and their wishes seemed to be heeded when L Phaung Sho was appointed chief minister.
“My opinion is the NLD had no choice but to appoint him as chief minister,” said 30-year-old Khun Athan, from the local Kayan ethnic group, who took part in both the 2012 martyrs commemoration and the recent protests against the Aung San statue.
Yet, this apparent deference to local wishes overlaid a history of tense factionalism, and difficult questions of legitimacy, within the NLD in Kayah State, which can be traced back to 1990.
Local politician Aung Tin at his home in the Kayah State capital of Loikaw (Pic: Phadu Htun Aung / Myanmar Now)
‘They did not listen to what we said’
Accompanying their landslide win elsewhere in Myanmar, the NLD won four out of eight parliamentary seats for Kayah State in the 1990 election. After the military junta dismissed the results nationwide, they cracked down particularly hard on the NLD in Kayah State, declaring it an “NLD-free zone.”
“When they [military intelligence] got the list of township coordinators, they didn’t know who they were and arrested everyone with the same name,” said 83-year-old U Aung Tin, who won a seat in 1990 with the NLD.
Due to continued repression and the jailing of several friends, Aung Tin left the NLD in 1994, and NLD activity in the state reduced to nothing.
When the NLD re-registered, following Aung San Suu Kyi’s meeting with newly installed president U Thein Sein in 2011, NLD activists and election candidates from 1990 tried to rebuild the party in the state.
Concurrently, however, a new group of people tried to build a party structure and win the approval of the central NLD leadership. They eventually succeeded, to the dismay of the veteran activists in the former group.
“The NLD’s decision was so tyrannical. They did not listen to what we said,” said Aung Tin, sitting in his living room with a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi on the wall.
At a loss, Aung Tin’s colleagues founded the Kayah Unity Democracy Party, which competed in the 2015 election. Though they failed to win a seat, they merged last year with another local party, the All Nationals’ Democracy Party, which won a seat in an April 2017 by-election, to form the Kayah State Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, the party chapter anointed by the central NLD leadership won most seats in the state in the 2015 election.
Local civil society and community groups, who campaigned for the NLD, saw in Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the best chance of preventing the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which then held all seats in Kayah State, from returning to power.
“We campaigned for the NLD [in 2015], especially targeting the constituencies where former ministers such as U Aung Min and U Soe Thein were running, to make sure local people won in the election,” said Khun Athan.
However, the same local groups say that, despite all this support, the NLD government has ignored them since the election. Worse, it has tried to exert tighter control over local civil society, demanding government approval at multiple levels even for cultural events.
“It is not easy to rebuild trust. We are now following different paths,” Khun Athan said.
The site of the proposed Aung San statue in Loikaw (Pic: Myanmar Now)
The planned Aung San statue is not without some local support. When Myanmar Now interviewed 15 local people in Loikaw, almost half of them—particularly, but not exclusively, those of Bamar ethnicity—said they supported it. The support was linked to approval of the chief minister, who, they said, had improved public transport in the state.
“It doesn’t harm them,” said a 21-year-old ethnic Kayan woman, referring to those opposing the statue. “I think we should erect it as a memorial, no matter what.”
Those in opposition accuse the chief minister and the NLD party of exploiting the memory of Aung San for electoral gain, as a substitute for effective governance.
“They want to follow the easy way and not build up a good image through their own abilities,” said local Karenni activist Dee Di, who was formerly sentenced to 32 years in prison for protesting against the new military-drafted constitution in 2008.
U Aung Naing Oo, a USDP member and former state minister, joined in the criticism: “When people see Bogyoke [Aung San], they will see Daw Su [Aung San Suu Kyi]. When they see Daw Su, they will see the NLD. This is using shortcuts for political gain.”
Critics allege that the chief minister, by backing the statue, is also trying to please higher-level leaders in the NLD to further his political ambitions.
L Phaung Sho has already risen through the NLD ranks swiftly. Despite having no history in the party prior to 2015, he is now a member of its central committee.
Myanmar Now sent a letter seeking comment from the chief minister in the second week of July but received no response. On phoning his office, his personal assistant said the chief minister was too busy respond.
L Phaung Sho told Radio Free Asia in early July that the state government had been transparent from the beginning about the statue.
“When the sculpting of the bronze statue of Bogyoke [Aung San] began, we invited all the ward administrators and ethnic literature and cultural committees in the state, and we continued with the plan only when they agreed to the plan,” se said.
He claimed the majority supported the plan, with objections only coming from a small group of people. He said the government would fulfil the majority’s wish.
However, the state-level NLD chapter said in July that they warned the chief minister and the state government five months ago about the sensitivity of the proposed statue.
“The [state-level] party decided in February that the project should be postponed and should only proceed with the people’s support,” said Kayah State NLD chairman U Thaung Htay.
‘The fire has already started’
Former ministers in the state government said they were concerned about communal tensions, given local ethnic people’s pride in their independent history.
“We cannot touch issues related to race, ethnicity and religion here,” said U Ye Win, a USDP member and former state minister of forestry and mineral resources.
“The government will now struggle to handle the situation. The fire has already started,” said the former Geba ethnic representative in the state government.
Some worry that ethnic armed groups will also be drawn into the dispute, threatening a fragile peace in the state.
The state’s biggest armed group, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), who have fought the Myanmar army for decades, has written to Aung San Suu Kyi expressing their concern at the arrest and prosecution of locals who opposed the Aung San statue. Activists in the state even urged the KNPP to protest against the third Union Peace Conference held in mid July in the capital Naypyidaw. The KNPP ultimately chose to attend, without protest.
Expressing frustration with the impasse over the statue, Karenni activist Dee Di, who was among those arrested, said, “We didn’t expect it would end up like this. Now we just have to write our own history.”
Editing by Ben Dunant