AN EVENING WITH ASHLEY SOUTH
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).
books have you published?
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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?
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
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.
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.