The road to Tarmoenye winds through some of the most picturesque countryside in Myanmar. High mountains etched with tea plantations sweep down to lush valleys bursting with flowers and trees blossoming in white, pale-shell pink and fiery reds.
It was this fertile landscape and gentle climate that attracted the earliest ‘Mone Wun’ to northern Shan, around 200 years ago, according to U Tuan Xin Yuan, an upright and distinguished-looking septuagenarian, who runs a school teaching Chinese language and culture to hundreds of local children.
He knows this, he says, because it was his great-great-grandfather who was the first of the group to make the journey from Yunnan to the Tarmoenye region, in Kutkai township, five generations ago.
“When he came here, there was lots of food. It was easy to find, and the weather was pleasant so he decided to stay. Then he went back to his home in Long Lin village in Yunnan and brought back his relatives and friends – they all came.”
There was no problem with the local Shan community, says U Tuan Xin Yuan, because there was so much unused land in those days. Indeed, the group appears to have quickly found favour with the local Shan prince, or saopha, gaining a reputation as loyal servants.
In terms of ethnicity, the Mone Wun don’t see themselves as hailing from one particular family or clan.
“It was the Shan saopha, in the English era, who gave the name of Mone Wun to the Yunnan people,” U Tuan Xin Yuan says.
The Mone Wun were little-known outside Tarmoenye and Kutkai until early March, when President U Thein Sein issued a statement ordering the Ministry of Immigration and Population to reissue their identity documents, which mostly describe their ethnicity as Mone Wun (Chinese). He instructed the ministry to give them Citizenship Scrutiny Cards bearing the ethnicity Mone Wun (Bamar), adding that it had been promised to them in 1998 by then-Senior General Than Shwe during a visit to Tarmoenye. The ministry estimates there about 60,000 Mone Wun in northern Shan State.
The decision prompted considerable anger, with some observers mistakenly believing the Mone Wun had been added to the list of official ethnic groups, which stands at 135 and is considered sacrosanct.
But there was also confusion over why the group would be labelled Bamar, the ethnicity of Myanmar’s majority, when they are so demonstrably of Chinese origin.
The teacher U Tuan Xin Yuan does not speak Myanmar. The interview is conducted in Chinese from his Tarmoenye home: a large and well-constructed farmhouse, it is built in the traditional courtyard formation seen across rural Yunnan and bedecked with golden corn cobs drying outside and slabs of hanging pork. Like many houses in Tarmoenye, the exterior is decorated with red and gold Chinese banners.
While the group has maintained many of their Chinese traditions, some have been discarded over the years. U Tuan Xin Yuan displays a picture of his grandmother. The photo is faded, but at the bottom of the image it is possible to make out her feet – tiny and pointed after being bound when she was a child in Tarmoenye.
“It was not her choice, but her parents wanted her to be beautiful like a model. To me it was a kind of torture,” U Tuan Xin Yuan says of the old Chinese custom, which his ancestors brought with them to Myanmar.
But if the group identified themselves in terms of place of origin and traditional culture rather than a particular ethnicity, at least one particular shared trait appears to have united them in a way that seems still to be paying off today: loyalty to powerful leaders.
U Than Shwe’s loyal supporters
When The Myanmar Times entered Tarmoenye on March 27 the town was awash with the green uniforms of Tatmadaw troops and a local militia. The town had recently come under attack during fighting between the Myanmar military and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, prompting hundreds to flee to villages in the surrounding mountains.
By the time of our visit the battles had moved to the mountains and most had returned to the town, residents said.
“Since the time of [former military dictator] Than Shwe, the Mone Wun have fought alongside the Tatmadaw. They love him,” is how one local Kachin man describes the relationship.
“When Than Shwe had just two bars on his shoulder he was based here and he and U Myint Lwin became good friends,” says U Tuan Xin Yuan, referring to a local USDP state parliamentarian who leads the Tarmoenye militia.
“U Myint Lwin is a clever man. He has a good brain. He supported the Tatmadaw with transportation and has a good relationship with U Than Shwe.
“U Myint Lwin supported transport for U Than Shwe and the Tatmadaw when they were fighting the BCP [communists].”
While Myanmar’s communists had Chinese backing at the time, the Mone Wun had more local concerns in deciding to back the military against the rebel group, he says.
“The BCP and Mone Wun were arguing over the same territory,” he says.
“After the 1960s, when U Than Shwe had only three bars, the security enforcer of the village – it was not a militia [at that time] – and the Tatmadaw aligned and fought the BCP [together].
“That is why he [U Than Shwe] did his best for Tarmoenye: because we helped a lot and did good for the country.”
Yet he insists the group maintains good relationships with other ethnic groups in the area – even at this time of fighting between the TNLA and the Tatmadaw.
U Tuan Xin Yuan shows a group photo that dates to the 1980s. It features a younger U Myint Lwin, sitting alongside key ethnic figures from the region, including a local Shan leader.
Asked if there is any historic connection between the Mone Wun and the Kokang people - another group of Chinese origin - who live in a neighbouring area, but have been engaged in conflict with the Tatmadaw, U Fan Le Chang, U Tuan Xin Yuan’s nephew who is helping translate, gives an emphatic “No!”
“The Kokang are brave and tough and want to fight. We are not like that at all. Here in Tarmoenye things are different from other areas. People live peacefully together. For years it has been a peaceful place in the Shan hills.”
Farming is the Mone Wun’s main interest, continues U Fan Le Chang. “We just want to grow tea and plant corn. Well, to be honest, we used to plant opium, but now we don’t. We can’t. And there’s no trade route to China. We stick to growing tea.”
If the initial reason for the Mone Wun to back the Tatmadaw was mutual benefit. That appears to still be the case today.
According to U Tuan Xin Yuan, the local militia, led by U Myint Lwin, has general day-to-day power in the area, but “if Than Shwe wants to enforce something he will”.
“I support the Tatmadaw. Whatever the Tatmadaw want, we want,” says U Tuan Xin Yuan.
He later adds, diplomatically, that while he likes the outgoing government, “I like the new government too. They are good and I think they will do good things for us.”
Former dictator U Than Shwe came to be vilified by many in Myanmar during his brutal regime, but U Tuan Xin Yuan is far from the only person in Tarmoenye to consider him a positive force.
“U Than Shwe has been good for the area. He gave us better transportation, electricity and communications,” says Ko Saw Nyi Nyi, 30, a local Mone Wun restaurateur, who says his family moved to the area from Dali, in Yunnan, 90 years ago.
Another young woman, the relative of a senior figure in the Tarmoenye militia, lets slip how U Than Shwe continues to be perceived in the area, when she refers to “Than Shwe’s government” making the recent decision to grant ethnic recognition to the Mone Wun, before correcting herself to say “Thein Sein’s government”.
A group by any other name
While the Mone Wun people we spoke to clearly believe the decision to grant official ethnic status to the group came from U Than Shwe - and consider it most likely some kind of reward for long term loyalty to the Tatmadaw - they are also a little confused by it.
Many in the region already hold Citizenship Scrutiny Cards that give them full citizenship rights. While some received these ahead of the 2010 elections - in what has been seen as a “vote winning” move by the USDP - others have had theirs much longer. For such people, the new recognition will make little difference in day-to-day life.
“Most Mone Wun people in Tarmoenye already have citizenship,” says Ko Saw Nyi Nyi, who says he received his card in 2010. “My grandparents didn’t get ID cards, but my parents got them and I got one.”
“Now we are approved as Burmese ethnic, we are Myanmar, we are citizens, but we don’t dare comment on it. We live in Myanmar so we are Myanmar - Chinese Myanmar.”
Ko Saw Nyi Nyi, says most ordinary people don’t think much about citizenship, and are just interested in getting on with farming or business. But he believes that one benefit of the new recognition is that it will be easier for future generations of Mone Wun to become citizens, particularly those living outside Tarmoenye, in areas such as Kuktai town, where fewer hold identity cards.
As for his own ethnicity? “I am Chinese from Myanmar,” is how he sees it.
Yet the Chinese part of the group’s identity has been varnished over by the new recognition. As well as upsetting some of the other ethnic groups, it raises issues for the Mone Wun too.
U Tuan Xin Yuan displays a series of ID cards from throughout his life, which illustrate his changing status.
Born in 1939, he says was approved as a citizen in 1948 on the day Myanmar gained independence. Holding up one ID card, he highlights the latest change.
“In 1991 my citizenship was Chinese - Myanmar. Now I must change it to Mone Wun - Bamar. The Burmese people don’t like that, because they say we are not Burmese. But if we go back to China now, they will not accept us either,” he says.
“I think it is good for us to have recognition, but I don’t know why they have done it. Maybe U Myint Lwin will know. I am just a farmer and a teacher.”
How does he see his own ethnicity? “I am Chinese,” he smiles.
For his nephew, U Fan Le Chang, it is less straightforward. Highlighting the complex and confusing identity issues Myanmar’s ethnic recognition system has created for many people, he declares, “I am not Chinese and I am not Myanmar. I am in the middle.”