The ethnic Mon community has been permitted by authorities to publicly celebrate their national day for the first time in 15 years in Myanmar.
The minority group, who number up to eight million of the country’s nearly 60 million people, assembled across the country, including in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, on Wednesday to mark the ancient founding of Hanthawady, the last Mon kingdom.
The development appeared to be a part of a wave of political and social reforms in the country, as the government moves to engage with the numerous ethnic minority groups that had faced oppression by Myanmar’s former military leadership.
The national day celebrations were permitted after a peace deal that was struck between the new Mon State Party and the government just a week ago.
Many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups want more autonomy from the new civilian government, which took over from military rule in 2010.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Yangon, said “it is a symbolic day for Myanmar, not only for the Mon people, but for the government as well”, noting that a number of senior officials attended the celebrations.
“It is just another small step in the long road of trying to engage all the ethnic minority groups of Myanmar.”
But he also noted that there was still widespread scepticism over the government’s sincerity to improve relations with the Mons.
“There is a still a lot of mistrust, a lot of scepticism that this government is making real change on the ground, that its not just doing it for its own economic benefit,” he said.
“I guess the main reason they are doing that is to get the economic sanctions against them by the US lifted.
“One of the Mon leaders mentioned that he is very pleased with all the political changes that are happening within the country, but he is disappointed by the fact that the Mon people have not been able to have a representative in the new cabinet.”
The Mons, who have their own distinct language, are credited with spreading Buddhism – the national religion – throughout Myanmar and Thailand.