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Burma's exiled ethnic nationalities seminar held in North America


Kao-Wao has conducted an interview with Ashley South, the author of the upcoming book, Mon Nationalism and Civil War in Burma: The Golden Sheldrake. Born in London, Ashley South lived and worked with the Mon in Thailand for seven years and is currently studying at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Kao-Wao: What books have you published?

'Mon Nationalism and Civil War in Burma: the Golden Sheldrake' (Curzon May 2002) will be my first book. I have written a few articles on Burmese politics, and when I was an undergraduate I published some poems.

Introduction to this new book?

The book is a political history of the Mon people of lower Burma and Thailand - the people of the Golden Sheldrake. The Mon are renowned for their important civilising role in pre-colonial Southeast Asia and achievements in the fields of art and religion. However, contemporary Mon society has received less attention.

Charting Mon history from the earliest times to the present, the book describes the origins of Burma’s ethnic politics in the pre-colonial era and developments during the British (and Japanese) colonial periods. Following independence in 1948, Burma was plunged into a civil war which still drags on today. 'The Golden Sheldrake' explores the background to and major episodes in the war, and compares the experiences of various parties to the conflict, including the Mon, Karen and Kachin ethnic communities and insurgent organisations. It describes the dynamics of armed conflict in Burma, and examines the controversial series of cease-fire agreements negotiated since 1989, between various insurgent armies and the military government. Exploring the relationship between the Burmese democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the ethnic insurgents, international and local non-government organisations, and Burma’s one million-plus refugees, the book concludes by looking at the future of the “ethnic question” in Burma.

Situating events in a regional perspective, 'The Golden Sheldrake' will be of interest to students of Southeast Asian history and politics. Anthropologists will appreciate the sustained focus on issues of identity and assimilation, whilst the author’s first-hand accounts of the humanitarian crisis along the Thailand-Burma border are of particular relevance to the study of displacement and under-development.

ISBN 0 7007 1609 2 (45.00 UK POUNDS) TO ORDER: Curzon Press Ltd., 51a George Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1HJ, UK

Why did you decide to write this book? What motivated you?

I lived and worked along the Thailand-Burma border for seven years (1991-97). After spending three years as a teacher and teacher trainer working mostly with the Karen, between 1994-97 I was as a field co-ordinator with the Burmese Border Consortium (BBC) in Sangkhlaburi, where I worked with the Mon and Karen refugees. During this time I came to know many of the key players in the NMSP and the wider Mon nationalist movement.

On my return to the UK, I set out to discover more about the Mon. I found that, while a good deal is known regarding their significant role in precolonial Southeast Asia, little has been published regarding the Mon in the modern period. Some of the literature even suggested that Mon was a dying language, and the people and their culture in irreversible decline. My experience and research showed that this is far from the case, and the book traces the Mon heritage, and relates it to contemporary developments. At a time when Mon studies appear to be undergoing something of a revival, it is useful to consider Mon political history in the context of events in Burma, Thailand and the region as a whole. In recent years, Mon authors have begun to record and analyse the history of the nationalist movement, and accounts have appeared in English, Mon, Thai and Burmese. However, no comprehensive treatment of this subject has previously been attempted.

With one or two exceptions, Westerners writing about contemporary Burmese politics have tended to neglect the Mon and other ethnic minority groups, and down-play the significance of the cease-fire process in Burma. At the risk of over-emphasising the role of the former, and without necessarily endorsing the latter, the book is an attempt to redress the balance.

What is your idea about the future of Burma?

That's a difficult question! I think it's very important that any agreement worked out in Rangoon should include representatives of ethnic minority groups, as well as the SPDC and NLD. Burmese history shows the disastrous consequences of the urban (predominantly Burman) political elite's previous attempts to co-opt ethnic minority leaders into accepting political settlements which they have not been involved in negotiating. Tripartite dialogue is essential, and there seems to be some evidence that a process of political transition is emerging in Burma. Of course, the NLD-SPDC talks are very important, but there are also other positive, but more low-profile, developments in relations between the urban-Burman political class and the ethnic nationalists (especially the Kachin).

What do you think about a future federal union in Burma?

Some kind of federal (or 'consociational') constitutional settlement is probably necessary. However, there are few international examples of stable federal unions emerging in countries as ethnically and politically divided as Burma. Therefore, Burma will have to forge its own unique constitutional path, learning for others' experience, but willing to try new ideas. Any successful federal settlement will have to take account of the fears and aspirations of the Bama majority, as well as the ethnic minorities. Perhaps the most important strategic decision will be whether or not to accommodate the Tatmadaw's centrist, authoritarian model of state-society relations.

What do you think of the future of the Mon?

I am very encouraged by the revival in Mon studies and national feeling over the past ten years. Although human and political rights continue to be severely abused in Burma, Mon culture and civil society have a bright future.

Since 1988, a new generation has emerged, to join the long struggle for rights and justice in Monland, with a new understanding of the central importance of democracy - not just as a distant goal, but as an on-going process. The emergence of such dynamic new groups as the Kao-Wao News Group illustrates this political and cultural revival.

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