Plan to Build Statue of Myanmar Independence Leader Angers Chin Ethnic Group

myanmar-aung-san-statue-chin-state-undated-photo.jpg A stature of Myanmar's independence hero General Aung San is supported by a wooden frame as it stands in a lot in Hakha, capital of western Myanmar's Chin state, October 2018.

Ethnic Chin groups in western Myanmar have expressed opposition to a Chin state government proposal to erect statues of three past ethnic leaders to appease public displeasure over a plan to put up a statue of the country’s independence hero in a perceived attempt to “Burmanize” the minority group.

Growing controversy surrounds the plan to erect the statue of General Aung San, the father of current Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a key leader of the then Burma’s fight for independence from British colonial rule.

Aung San led peace talks with Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minority leaders in February 1947 as the first step towards the creation of a federal union of all ethnic groups in Myanmar but was assassinated in July of that year.

The statue of Aung San was delivered to Chin state in September and is being temporarily housed on the grounds of the state parliament.

Many Chin civil society organizations and political parties oppose the erection of the general’s statue because Aung San came from the ethnic Bamar (Burman) majority that dominates the country and because, like other ethnic minority groups, they believe that the current government should focus on achieving equal rights for them.

To try to mitigate growing public hostility, the Chin state government recently informed the public through the media that statues of three Chin leaders from the state’s Tedim, Falam, and Hakha regions who signed the general’s Panglong Agreement 72 years ago could be erected alongside that of Aung San.

State government spokesman Soe Htet downplayed the controversy and said that half of the previous objections disappeared following the government’s proposal to erect the three other statues. He also expressed hope that the Aung San monument would not spark protests or vandalism as the erection of other statues of the general has in other ethnic states.

The Chin Youth Network, a local civil society organization, issued statements expressing its objection, saying that the aim of putting up the statues is to Burmanize local ethnic culture and icons.

Salai Mon Boi, a central committee member of the organization, said the three Chin leaders to be immortalized in statues did not represent all tribes in Chin state when they signed the Panglong Agreement.

“They were not leaders of the various tribes from southern Chin state and Chin people outside Chin state,” he said.

“Erecting their statues would raise questions about inclusivity and the validity of their representation,” he said. “It could also lead to disagreements between Chin tribes, so it’s best not to put up any statues at the moment.”

Ngai Sark, a Chin leader from the Yangon-based Chin National Democracy Party, said he, too, opposes the plan to erect all four statues.

“I believe General Aung San did not represent the Chin people in the Panglong Agreement,” he said. “He only represented the Bamar government, so I don’t think we need to erect a General Aung San statue in Chin state.”

“I also believe we should not accept the erection of statues of the Chin leaders as secondary figures just to win acceptance of the General Aung San statue,” he said. “Our Chin leaders were not his subordinates.”

Ngai Sark said that he and his party are monitoring the government’s actions and will issue additional announcements when necessary.

Donors, funders needed

The casting of each of the three statues would cost 20 million-30 million kyats (U.S. $12,500-U.S. $18,800), an expense the state government will not cover on its own, Soe Htet said.

“We would need to find donors and funders if the proposal about the Chin leaders’ statues succeeds,” he said. “General Aung San’s statue was funded by private donors.”

The Chin state government fears that the current controversy could blow up if it uses money from its budget for the monuments, he said, citing conflicts in Kayah, Mon, and Kachin states where the state governments paid for Aung San statues.

In June, local authorities in the Chin state town of Thantlang canceled plans to build a controversial statue of General Aung San in the face of local opposition, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.

The town’s Municipal Affairs Committee angered residents when it asked for and received 30 million kyats from the state government to build the statue in early 2018, because they wanted the funds to be used for infrastructure projects, the report said.

A statue of Aung San on horseback had stood in a park in the Chin state capital Hakha, but it was removed when the plot of land on which it stood was used for the state parliament building.

The state parliament later found donors willing to pay for the casting of a new statue and planned to erect it at a scenic spot at the entrance to the town.

Despite significant opposition to the plan, Salai Aye Min Tun, chairman of Chin Ethnic People’s Party comprised of Chin people living outside the state, said he did not object to the monuments.

“I have nothing to object to about just erecting a statue,” he said. “General Aung San’s fight for independence was not just for the [majority ethnic] Bamar people. “Perhaps statues of our Chin leaders could be erected in Bamar majority areas in the future.”

For now, state government officials have backed off from their push for the erection of all the statues, Chin parties and civil society groups said.

The dispute over the statue in Chin state follows a similar flap in Kayah state, the home in eastern Myanmar of the Karenni people, where plans to build a golden statue of Aung San in the state capital Loikaw drew thousands of protesters early this year.

Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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