BANGKOK – Minority rights activists in Myanmar have been protesting the installation of new statues of General Aung San, considered the architect of modern Myanmar and the father Aung San Suu Kyi, the current state counselor.
Aung San, who represented the Bamar majority community, is considered the hero of Myanmar’s independence struggle against the British and a pioneer in establishing a federal state with equal rights for all ethnicities, a promise which was never fulfilled.
Since 2016, after his daughter and Nobel Peace Laureate Suu Kyi became the de-facto leader of the country after decades of direct military dictatorship, authorities have erected a number of statues of the “father of the nation” across Myanmar.
The military junta, which ruled Myanmar between 1988 and 2011, had almost entirely erased official homage to Aung San – who had also founded the Myanmar military and was assassinated by political rivals just months after independence – since his daughter Suu Kyi was leading the opposition to the military dictatorship.
However, since Suu Kyi came to power, the figure of her father has again occupied centerstage, with his image expected to be printed on Myanmar’s currency notes for the first time in three decades.
Members of some minority groups perceive this as a “threat” to their own cultural roots and figures.
In late January, the installation of a statue of Aung San on horseback in Loikaw, capital of the western Kayah province, mostly inhabited by the Karenni minority community, led to protests that spilled into February.
“The government should consult the local ethnic people before erecting statues. We don’t hate Aung San, but we should have the opportunity to raise statues to honor our own ethnic heroes,” Ko De De, spokesperson of the Union of Karenni State Youth, told EFE.
“These monuments are very expensive, and the money could have been used to develop the country, for example, to improve the education system or the electricity network,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi, representative of the Action Committee for Democracy Development, told EFE.
On Tuesday, the Myanmar police had to use teargas and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protestors, who had gathered near the new statue in Loikaw to protest.
Several protesters were injured during the demonstration that took place on Union Day, the anniversary of Aung San signing an agreement with leaders of three ethnic minorities in 1947, which was key to the establishment of an independent Myanmar.
In mid-2018, the face of an Aung San statue was stained with green paint in Myitkyina, capital of the southern Kachin state, while in the central Sagaing region, Naga ethnic groups had also protested a monument for the general.
Ethnic minorities in Myanmar account for more than 30 percent of its 53-million population and have been for years demanding greater autonomy under the federal structure.
The Myanmar military has been fighting a civil war with dozens of minority armed groups since independence, and although Suu Kyi has tried to resolve the conflicts through the peace process, there has not been much progress.
Myanmar has been going through a democratic transition since 2011, after almost half a century of military rule.
In 2016, the National League for Democracy – led by Suu Kyi – grabbed a landslide victory in the elections, raising hopes for change in the country.
However, three years down the line, they have not been able to deliver much.
The NLD’s influence in areas dominated by the minorities has waned since then and the party could receive a drubbing in these regions in the next elections in 2020.
In April 2017, Suu Kyi’s party lost a parliamentary seat in by-elections held in the state of Mon, where the decision to name a bridge after her father had created controversy.