|MON PEOPLE STRIVE
TO PRESERVE DREAM OF OWN HOMELAND
(By DENIS D. GRAY, Associated Press: November 7, 2003)
Sangkhlaburi, Thailand -- You won't
find it on any maps or road signs, but on full-moon nights
like this, with a thousand lanterns flickering, Buddhist monks
praying and sarong-clad women carrying offerings, one can
almost believe that Monland lives in more than dreams.
The Bor Kamot-Kaban festival is one of many celebrated by
6,000 Mon people whose hillside home has proved a haven from
the harsh military regime in nearby Myanmar and the not always
welcoming Thais around them.
Living above a spectacular lake ringed by craggy limestone
mountains, these heirs of one of Southeast Asia's great civilizations
strive to preserve their language, traditions and even the
dream of an independent homeland -- something they last possessed
250 years ago.
Within Myanmar, about a million Mon live on uneasy terms
with the junta that in 1995 negotiated a cease-fire with Mon
insurgents who were among several ethnic movements waging
"People were tired after 40 years of fighting. Homes
were burned, fields destroyed, people were killed or disappeared.
Now they are trying to re-establish their lives," says
Kasauh Mon of the Human Rights Foundation of Monland.
Some 100,000 Mon are thought to live in Thailand, descendants
of those who fled upheavals in their homeland over the centuries.
In recent times, sizable numbers have scattered, from Australia
to Fort Wayne, Ind.
Thai authorities forced 10,000 Mon refugees back into Myanmar
during the 1990s, and most of those allowed to remain have
been refused Thai citizenship. They even need special permission
to leave Sangkhlaburi district, limiting their chances for
The Mon make do as fishermen, farmers and small traders.
But they have a home, thanks to a revered 94-year-old monk.
When the old town of Sangkhlaburi was flooded in the 1980s
by the rising waters behind the Khao Laem dam, Abbot Uttama
obtained land for his people on the hill near the new town.
At the crown of the hill, the abbot constructed the resplendent
Wang Wiwekaram Monastery as a repository of Mon culture. Donations
poured in from many Thais who also regard him with great reverence.
"He's a good and intelligent leader for the Mon people.
We don't see anybody to replace him. It's very sad,"
Kasauh Mon says.
Through Uttama's efforts, youngsters learn the Mon language.
Each year he invites monks from Myanmar to give examinations
in Mon and Buddhist scriptures, awarding prizes to the best.
Activists in Sangkhlaburi have started a Mon Culture and
Literature Survival Project, a news agency and Web site and
are conducting investigations into human rights abuses by
Myanmar's ruling military.
Although the junta denies the accusations, the exiles have
detailed arrests and torture, confiscation of land, forced
labor, and attempts to suppress the Mon language and traditions.
Splinter groups battle Myanmar's government despite the cease-fire,
but the New Mon State Party, which made the peace deal, is
allowed some authority over small areas in Mon state of southern
In Thailand, Mon cultural _expression is allowed free rein,
and festivals such as the Bor Kamot-Kaban are like ancient
murals come to life.
At night, to the shimmering tones of strings, cymbals and
xylophones, mothers turn preteen daughters into little princesses
of old, combing their long, shiny hair into garlanded topknots
and rouging their lips.
The next morning, 16 of them dance in the vast monastery
courtyard. The faithful fill a canoe with rice, fruit and
sweets and float it on the lake in memory of an ancient monk
who needed sustenance while meditating on a boat far out at
It was the Mon who spread the dominant Theravada Buddhism
into Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, along with their own
Politically, they flourished in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Although their capital was sacked by the Burmese in the 11th
century, Mon monks, craftsmen and architects shaped the wondrous
capital of Pagan. Mon power was regained, lost and finally
broken in the mid-18th century, when they became a people
without a home.
Jack Dunford, who heads a collection of aid groups called
the Burma Border Consortium, says the most the Mon can hope
for is that their rights and culture will be protected within
a federal union in Myanmar.
"To be realistic, the Mon are not going to have their
own kingdom or sovereign state," he says.