A monk is a noble being. A monk lives a simple life. A monk sacrifices everything for the common good. Monks are leaders of the community. Monks work to ensure peace and enlightenment.
The Mon community lost one of its greatest monks last month. The Revered Eindaka from Kama Wat village passed away. He served as Chairman of the Mon Language and Cultural Committee for over ten years. He was my mentor when I was living in Mon State. This is my own tribute to him and his colleagues, all of those who worked for the preservation of Mon language and cultures in Mon lands.
Language is a foundation of human existence. Each language has its own unique characteristics. Languages can be changed due to location, dialect, and environment. The cultural survival of one ethnicity has endured in the 21st century. The spoken and written language of the Mon people in lower Burma and central Thailand has been revitalised in recent years through the efforts of Buddhist monks and community leaders.
The preservation of language and culture is agreed to be one of the most urgent challenges for the new generation of Mon people at large. Learning and teaching of the Mon language has been discouraged by the government of the Union of Myanmar during the last two hundred years in Burma. Mon language and culture have only survived through the effort of the local community’s role and commitment during the past sixty years of struggle for self-determination in Mon State within the Union of Myanmar.
“It is time to name Mon children in Mon language,” the Revered Eindaka told the delegates of the Language and Cultural Committee in 1991 in my native village. “We are Mon. We should not name our children in other languages, such as Burmese,” he explained. The Revered Eindaka tirelessly worked for over thirty years for only one mission—the survival of Mon language and culture.
I was born in a Mon family in a rural village in Mon State. I was taught Mon language and culture at a monastery for over fifteen years. I was cared for by Buddhist monks whilst my parents were working at the farm. Learning Mon language from early childhood has indeed proved valuable for me, although, at times, dangerous as well. I was interrogated by local security officials for my role in working to link Mon monks and resistance leaders in rural areas in 1992. However, promoting Mon language has been my mission since I was a child. This essay includes my collective experiences about the plight of Mon people’s language and culture in the context of the social and political environment within Burma.
Millions of children born to Mon parents live in urban cities in Burma. The majority of the Mon population lives in rural areas and farmland in lower Burma. Rural Mon children are able to speak, read, and write their language better than those from urban families because they can learn the language at their local Buddhist monastery.
Mon language classes have occasionally been opened in major cities during the last twenty years, but with an acute lack of resources and funding from the local governments. However, parents and volunteer teachers have sacrificed time and money to run similar classes in local community settings. The role of young Buddhist monks is valued with these projects. The monks and local volunteer teachers have formed ‘working committees’ and ‘support groups’ within their local communities that assist with the community language classes in their own villages. I was a monk when I was in my native place until 1994, and I was member of the committee for promoting the teaching of Mon language and culture.
Nai Kelasa (a.k.a. Nai Khaing Weang) said, “Revered Eindka was the most honest, courageous, and sincere leader among Mon Buddhist monks. He opened his temple to everyone and welcomed all factions among religious Mon monks. He was a noble monk.” Nai Kelasa was my master when I was a child, and he cared for me for over ten years.
Historically, the Mon language is part of the widely distributed Mon-Khmer language group. Racially, the Mon people are similar to other Southeast Asians. Although no reliable population figures exist, Mon speakers are estimated to number about 1,130,000 in Burma and less than 200,000 in Thailand, according to a Thai research group.
Inscriptions in the Mon language dating from as early as the 6th century have been found. The early Mon states were organized according to Indian political principles and were headed by god-kings. Mon kingdoms in Thailand disappeared as Thai influence expanded in the 13th century. Those in Lower Burma frequently were at war with Burmese states that were located farther north. Even after the last important Mon kingdom fell in the 16th century, Mon resistance continued. Many refugees fled to Thailand, their descendants comprising the present Mon population there.
Revered Eindaka and other senior Mon monks have been working for the survival of Mon language and cultures for over five decades, despite the fact that the government of the Union of Myanmar does not appreciate their efforts for the social capital of the community. He was forced and pressured by local authorities to close his language classes on many occasions, but he resisted on legal and moral grounds. It is his determination that sustains the community summer classes to this day. Thousands of Mon children have learned to read the Mon language in recent years.
The Burmese adopted much from Mon culture, including their writing system. The Mon are said to have been the first Theravada Buddhists in Southeast Asia. Their monastic discipline and rituals are highly respected even today. Mon culture shares much with that of other lowland Southeast Asian peoples. Nearly all Mons are Theravada Buddhists.
Historians say that today, distinctive Mon cultural practices in most areas of Thailand are much attenuated, and most people with Mon ancestry have lost the ability to speak Mon. In Burma more of the traditional Mon culture has been maintained. A political movement seeking the formation of an independent Mon state in Burma has been actively opposed by the Burmese government.
According to a Mon historical book, the Mons are believed to be one of the earliest people of continental Southeast Asia. They hosted the earliest Southeast Asian civilizations, including the Dvaravati in Central Thailand (whose culture proliferated into Isan), and the Kingdom of Thaton. They were the first receivers of Theravada missionaries from Sri Lanka, in contrast to their Hindu contemporaries like the Khmers or Chams. The Mons adopted the Pallava script and the oldest Mon script was found in a cave in modern Saraburi dating around 550 AD. Though no remains have been found belonging to the Thaton Kingdom, it was mentioned widely in Burmese and Lanna chronicles. The legendary Queen Jamadevi from the Chao Phraya Valley came to rule as the first queen of the Haribhunjyaya (or Hariphunchai, modern Lamphun) Kingdom around 800 AD.
It is a noble task that the Revered Eindaka took as his moral duty to continue our history.
The Revered Eindaka and his colleagues have ensured the survival of Mon language and culture. He has earned a place in history. He has lit a candle in the darkness of the Mon people’s plight in the 21st century. It is our duty to carry on with this light until we find our brightness in our own homeland.
A people cannot survive if their language is dead.
By Nai Pandhita from Dhama Bhirata Monastery), July 2011