Several thousand people in Mon State joined a March 19 protest against a parliamentary decision to name a bridge after Bogyoke Aung San in spite of local opposition.
The controversy has laid bare deeper anxieties about the central, and largely Burmese government’s control over ethnic minority areas, as well as a perceived denial of ethnic groups’ right to self-determination.
Over 20,000 people participated in the demonstration in Mon State’s capital Mawlamyine following Pyithu Hluttaw’s decision last week to press ahead with naming the new bridge in honor of the Bamar independence hero. Pa-O, Karen and Bamar demonstrators joined ethnic Mon at the rally. The protesters shouted, “No Bogyoke Aung San Bridge”, and carried signs demanding that the Union government recognize the wishes of the ethnic minorities.
Early in February, the Mon State government floated the idea of naming the bridge in honor of the national hero, martyr, and father of National League for Democracy leader State Counsellor Daw Aung San Auu Kyi. However, the proposal raised the ire of local Mon residents who wished to keep the bridge name a straightforward affair, designating it Thanlwin Bridge, or Thanlwin (Chaungzone) Bridge.
Amid local protest momentum, the state government backtracked, but then Pyithu Hluttaw decided to push on with the derided bridge designation. MP Mi Kun Chan, member of National League for Democracy (NLD) and representative of Paung Township constituency, submitted a proposal, which last week was approved by majority vote, despite words of caution from the Union Minister of Ethnic Affairs. The proposal gained 217 yes-votes, compared to 43 objects and 116 abstentions.
More than just a symbolic issue, forcing the Bogyoke Aung San name undermines national reconciliation efforts, angered residents in Mon State say.
“They [parliament] did not recognize our ethnic minority’s wishes,” said Mi Kun Chan Non, a leader of a Mon women’s organization. “But as [parliament is] majority Bamar, they did not accept the locals’ wishes. They did not recognize that giving the bridge such a name can have [negative] impacts on the national reconciliation and ethnic unity.”
She added that as representatives for the voice of the people, the parliamentarians have failed, and instead fallen prey to a political agenda that contradicts local interests.
Nai Mon Yarzar, one of the March 19 protest leaders, agreed.
“The fact that Hluttaw decided to approve naming the bridge after Bogyoke Aung San instead of agreeing to call it the Thanlwin (Chaungzone) Bridge reveals the way that ethnic minorities are bullied in the democratic system,” he said. “They must respect minority’s wishes if they really want national unity.”
Translated by Aong Jaeneh
Edited by Laignee Barron for BNI