Mon State’s Bridgegate: Ethnic Politics or Realpolitik?

Elizabeth Rhoads on ‘Bridgegate’ and by-elections in Mon State.

The eruption of public fury after the naming of the new bridge in Mon State after Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, independence leader Bogyoke Aung San, was recently highlighted in Tea Circle. Matt Walton argued that ‘Bridgegate’ was yet another example of the government’s failure to incorporate and understand ethnic grievances in Myanmar. While in many similar situations this argument may hold true, in this particular case, I offer an alternate appraisal of events that focuses on competing political factions.

Local media reported in February that after receiving complaints of conflicts of interest against Mon State Chief Minister Min Min Oo, an NLD (National League for Democracy) investigation committee was formed, and completed their report in January 2017. On 12 February, the Mon State government decided not to name the bridge after Aung San. Yet, the Union government funded the bridge construction and could easily override the State government’s decision, as, according to the 2008 Constitution, union law supersedes state and region laws.

The opening ceremony of the bridge was slated for 13 February, Aung San’s birthday, and was canceled due to protest. Shortly thereafter, on 17 February 2017, Min Min Oo issued a statement of resignation on his Facebook page. Yet, according to local Mon State media, Mon State Chief Minister Min Min Oo reportedly resigned over the proposal to name the bridge after independence leader Bogyoke Aung San. Since his resignation, Min Min Oo has been publicly vocal with his support for Mon nationalists in their protests against naming the bridge after Aung San. Does it make sense that a Minister would resign over a bridge name if there were not other issues at stake?

The NLD won in Mon State in 2015, as it did in many states, at the expense of ethnic parties. But by-elections are coming up, and there are two major Mon parties that will contest the elections. The longstanding and highly popular MNP (Mon National Party), led by Union Ethnic Affairs Minister Nai Thet Lwin, is strapped for funds to compete against larger parties like the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) and NLD. As Nai Thet Lwin, MNP’s founder and Vice Chairman and his daughter, Mi Kon Chan (Lower House MP, Paung) have joined the NLD government, the MNP has become more intertwined with the NLD. Into this vacuum, enters the All Regional Mon Region Democracy Party, with significant (albeit implicit) support from the USDP.

As Matt Walton addressed in his post on the echoes of Burmanization in the conflict over the bridge, many ethnic minority communities see the NLD as the party of Burmans. Walton argues that 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.” The support of non-Burmans within the NLD for the naming of the bridge in Mon State leads us to the assimilation aspect of Walton’s Burmanisation thesis. Is toeing the party line in the NLD, perhaps to the detriment of ethnic issues, the price for participation in government?

Mi Kon Chan, the Mon State MP (Paung) who proposed naming the bridge after Aung San in the Lower House, would likely disagree. When she spoke for the proposal on the Lower House Floor, she said: “[Aung San’s] name belongs to the whole nation, but doesn’t represent any individual ethnic group…. We need to differentiate between national leaders and ethnic leaders.” Mi Kon Chan’s father, Ethnic Affairs Minister Nai Thet Lwin would likely also disagree, albeit for different reasons, as he disagrees with his own daughter. Nai Thet Lwin’s Mon National Party sent a letter of objection to the bridge name to the Chief Minister in February. He then publicly criticized both his daughter, for proposing the bridge name, and the NLD, for using parliament to solve the dispute over the naming of the bridge.

However, while our eyes are on ‘Burmanisation’ and ‘Bridgegate’, the eyes of party activists and MPs are on the 2017 by-elections. The bridge links Mawlaymyine and Chaungzon townships, divided by the Salween (Thanlwin) river. Chaungzon township is one of the nine vacant Pyithu Hluttaw constituencies currently being contested in the by-election set for 1 April.

Dr. Aung Naing Oo, Deputy Speaker of the Mon State Hluttaw representing Chaungzon-1, holds the AMRDP’s (All Mon Region Democracy Party) sole seat in the state legislature. The AMRDP lost 9 seats in the union parliament in 2015 when the NLD came to power (the AMRDP contested the 2010 elections while the NLD and MNP boycotted) and several in the regional hluttaw. Dr. Aung Naing Oo has reportedly been a key figure in the demonstrations against the naming of the bridge. Hyping the bridge controversy is a sure way to get voters to have negative associations with the NLD and positive associations with Mon nationalism, the USDP, and thus, the All Mon Region Democracy Party when they go to the ballot box this weekend.

Does the fact that by-elections are quickly approaching absolve the NLD government of using the union parliament to supersede the state government and name a bridge in Mon state after Bogyoke Aung San? No, not really. But it does explain in part, the mass protests, the organization of the anti-Aung San Bridge contingent, and why this particular bridge has become such a highly visible political issue.

The key issue here is federalism. Should the Union government be able to make decisions that cannot be challenged by state governments? According to the 2008 Constitution, the answer is yes, but the protests are surprisingly free from calls for Constitutional reform – which is the underlying legal issue behind ‘Bridgegate’. Instead, a familiar call to a very two-dimensional idea of ethnic rights (language, clothing, culture, names) has been mobilized – blocking both the Constitutional matter at the heart of this issue, and the NLD’s chances at the ballot box this weekend.