Outrage and protests that a new bridge in Mon State will be named after General Aung San against locals wishes have overshadowed the change it will bring to Bilu Kyun Island.
Construction of the 59.8 billion kyats bridge began in February 2015, and the bridge was officially opened on 9 May 2017. It spans the mouth of the Salween River and joins the Mon State capital Mawlamyine to Chaungzon Township on the island of Bilu Kyun.
Originally locals wanted to call the bridge the Yamanya (meaning Mon State in the Mon language) or the Thanlwin (Salween) Bridge.
Locals only found out that they were not going to get their way when the Ministry of Construction sent Aung Naing Oo, the deputy speaker of the Mon State parliament, a letter telling him that the bridge would be officially opened and named the General Aung San, after Aung San Suu Kyi’s father who led negotiations for Burma’s independence from the British, on 13 February, the 102nd anniversary of Aung San’s birthday.
This upset locals who felt that the central government was ignoring the Mon people’s wishes and imposing the wish of the Bamar majority on an ethnic minority and depriving them of self-determination. Their sense of anger was probably not helped by the fact that many ethnic people feel that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have neglected their plight since they came to power just over a year ago and had remained silent as abuses by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) against ethnic people have increased in many areas. Many also probably remembered that General Aung San was the founder of the Tatmadaw, which has been persecuting ethnic people since Myanmar’s independence.
The locals were so outraged that the opening of the bridge had to be cancelled.
Then, on 28 February, Mi Kon Chan the NLD Member of Parliament for Paung Township in Mon State, put forward a proposal to the Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) calling for the bridge to be named the General Aung San.
This prompted locals to hold a protest march in Mawlamyine on 2 March that was attended by 3,000 people.
The Pyithu Hluttaw proposal was approved on 14 March, but not all MPs approved. One of the strongest critics of the proposal was Mi Kon Chan’s father, U Nai Thet Lwin, the Union Minister for Ethnic Affairs.
According to the Myanmar Times he said: “Naming a bridge should not have reached the Hluttaw. We have state government and local residents. The Mon State government will choose an appropriate name and if local residents accept it, it is fine, and that is all.”
He also said about Mi Kon Chan: “It is made worse by the fact that the one who submitted the motion in Hluttaw is my daughter.”
In response to the ruling, nearly 20,000 people joined another protest March in Mawlamyine on 19 March.
The protests were led by the Committee of Public Movement for Thanlwin Bridge. The group also started a petition on 13 April to oppose using the name General Aung San for the bridge.By 25 April they had collected over 120,000 signatures for the petition.
Also, in early April, 14 political parties issued a statement opposing the bridge’s proposed name saying that it hurt solidarity and efforts to reconcile the country.
Eventually, without any public announcement,before dawn on 27 April, signs reading ‘General Aung San Bridge’ were put up at either end of the bridge before it was opened to traffic at 5am. An official opening ceremony was then held on 9 March.
The locals anger at the way the NLD government ignored their views may well have contributed to the NLD losing the Pyithu Hluttaw seat of Chaungzon on Bilu Kyun Island, which they had previously held, to the USDP in the 1 April by elections.
With all the fuss over the naming of the bridge, little attention has been paid to what effect the bridge will have on the island of Bilu Kyun and its inhabitants.
Bilu Kyun Island, which translates as Ogre Island, lies about 500 metres west off the shore of Mawlamyine City where the Salween River flows into the sea. It is about 30 kilometres long and roughly the size of Singapore. It is home to about 64 villages and 200,000 people.
Despite being so close to Mawlamyine,the pace of life is very different. This is because, until the construction of the bridge the only way to get large goods to the island was by ferry. There were only a few each day, the last of them ran at 3.30pm and recently they were becoming increasingly infrequent because some of the ferries had to be taken out of service due to safety issues. The only other way to get to the island was by long tail boat, but obviously, these cannot carry nearly as much.
Travellers visiting the island from the comparatively modern city of Malamyine would feel as if they were travelling back in time. Cars were banned on the island, and for a long time the only form of transport on the mainly unmade dirt roads was either horse and cart or buffalo carts that were later supplemented by some dilapidated trucks, motorcycles and tuk tuks for taking tourists round the island.
Not many people have electricity because the island is not part of the national grid and anyone who can get electricity pays more for it than anywhere else in Myanmar.
Apart from agriculture, the only industries on the island are traditional rural industries and handicrafts. Different villages tend to specialise in producing different products; these include rubber bands, bamboo hats, tobacco pipes, walking sticks and writing slates. In recent years there has been a decline in this manufacturing, and many of the workshops still producing these products are now more geared towards tourists.
Bilu Kyun is also famous for traditional Burmese Kick boxing competitions over the New Year celebrations of Thingyan in April. A travelling boxing ring sets up in a different temple on the island every day of Thingyan. It is accompanied by local kick boxers who fight each day in front of excited crowds for the chance to win relatively paltry amounts of prize money.
Once the fuss about the name of the bridge has died down, its enduring legacy will be how it will change Bilu Kyun Island and the lives of its inhabitants.
As a teacher from Chaungzon said to Eleven Media: “I am glad that the bridge has opened. Transport costs will be far lower. It will make our education, work and health care easier.”
It will also undoubtedly modernise Bilu Kyun Island, so if you want to experience the traditional Mon lifestyle on the island, it is probably better to visit it sooner rather than later as it will probably change very quickly now it is permanently linked to the mainland.