Dubbed by some “the Palestinians of Asia”, the Mon people – numbering between two and four million in Burma and an estimated fifty thousand to two hundred thousand in Thailand (chiefly in the western provinces of Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi, in the Gulf province of Samut Sakhon and in Nonthaburi and Pathum Thani, just north of Bangkok) – have endured centuries of persecution, displacement and forced assimilation.
Ethnologists speculate that the Mon originated either in India or Mongolia, travelling south to settle on the western banks of the Chao Phraya valley in the first century BC. Here they founded the Dvaravati kingdom (sixth to eleventh centuries AD), building centres at U Thong, Lopburi and Nakhon Pathom and later consolidating a northern kingdom in Haripunchai (modern-day Lamphun). They probably introduced Theravada Buddhism to the region, and produced some of the earliest Buddhist monuments, particularly Wheels of Law and Buddha footprints.
Over on the Burmese side of the border, the Mon kingdom had established itself around the southern city of Pegu well before the Burmese filtered into the area in the ninth century, but by the mid-eighteenth century they’d been stripped of their homeland and were once again relocating to Thailand. The Thais welcomed them as a useful source of labour, and in 1814 the future Rama IV arrived at the Kanchanaburi border with three royal warboats and a guard of honour to chaperone the exiles. Swathes of undeveloped jungle were given over to them, many of which are still Mon-dominated today.
The persecution of Burmese Mon continues to this day under Burma’s repressive regime (see Refugees from Burma: the Karen), and the Mon continue to struggle for the right to administer their own independent Mon State in their historical homelands opposite Kanchanaburi province in lower Burma. As one commentator has described it, while some of Burma’s ethnic minority groups seek to establish autonomy, the Mon are attempting to reclaim it. Though the New Mon State Party (NMSP) entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese junta in June 1995, international human-rights organizations continue to report gross violations against civilian Mon living in Burma. Thousands of Mon men, women and children have been press-ganged into unpaid labour, soldiers occupy certain Mon villages and commandeer produce and livestock, and reports of beatings and gang rapes are not uncommon. In an attempt to wipe out Mon culture, the junta has also banned the teaching of Mon language, literature and history in government schools, and outlawed the wearing of Mon national dress at official institutions.
Not surprisingly, Mon have been fleeing these atrocities in droves, the majority ending up in three resettlement camps in a Mon-controlled area along the Thai–Burma border, the biggest being Halockhani near Sangkhlaburi; the 11,000 Mon estimated to be living in these camps as of October 2011 have no right of entry into Thailand. For more information, see the website of the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM; wrehmonnya.org).
Like Thais, the Mon are a predominantly Buddhist, rice-growing people, but they also have strong animist beliefs. All Mon families have totemic house spirits, such as the turtle, snake, chicken or pig, which carry certain taboos; if you’re of the chicken-spirit family, for example, the lungs and head of every chicken you cook have to be offered to the spirits, and although you’re allowed to raise and kill chickens, you must never give one away. Guests belonging to a different spirit group from their host are not allowed to stay overnight. Mon festivals also differ slightly from Thai ones – at Songkhran (Thai New Year), the Mon spice up the usual water-throwing and parades with a special courtship ritual in which teams of men and women play each other at bowling, throwing flirtatious banter along with their wooden discs.