(Photos; 1.Female Troops on parade, 2.A female solider poses in front of the Mon flag with golden drake in flying, 3, Nai Shwe kyin, the leader of the Mon resistance, 4.Women in traditional Mon dress listen to speeches, 5. Young Mon soldiers stand at attention during the National Day ceremony, 6. A Mon family reunite in the ceremony, 7. A Mon man with jacket, Monland is very cold.)
James Fahn went to observe Mon National Day celebration, Burma's Tavoy district last week and got a lesson in History
Throughout the whole length of its history, the kingdom of Burma has suffered from one chronic draw back: the heterogeneous nature of its population. . . Several times Burmese leaders have unified the country by force, but they have always shown themselves incapable of going on from there to organize the country in an effective manner.
Historian Gorges Coedes, The Making of Southeast Asia, 1962.
Unity through force never lasts. Slorc think it can control the country through force, but unless it solves the political problems, peace will not be permanent. If we are beaten, the next generation will carry on.
Mon resistance leader Nai Shwe Kyin, 1995.
"MONLAND is cold!" The Thai reporter's mock shivers evoked laughter, both because the cool, mountain air came as a welcome change to the heat and clamour of Bangkok, and because Monland itself is such a tenuous place.
Throughout history, the Mon have managed to rule themselves many times, only to be conquered and subjugated again by neighbouring armies.
In the long-running game of musical chairs that makes up Southeast Asian politics, the Mon nation-like the Champa, the East-Timorese, and the Karen, to name a few - was left without a state.
Today Monland is a figment of ambiguity. It does not exist on any official maps, but only in patches where the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and its military wing the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), hold sway.
The NMSP has its headquarters, for instance, deep in the jungle in Burma's Tavoy District, just over the border from Kanchanaburi province. It's isolated from the rest of Burma by mountains with forests so thick their life in Thailand can only be found in the national park. Nobody will say exactly where the HQ is - some say it's mobile.
There doesn't even seem to be agreement about what to call this area. It is alternatively referred to as Monland. Mon State the headquarters' area. Tavoy District or "Burma side" if you're in Thailand.
It's certainly not typical Mon country. The Mon people have traditionally preferred to live as farmers and fishermen along the coastal plain, and today remain concentrated along the Martaban coast in Burma, according to Nai Hong Sa, an NMSP official. In this they are different from the Karen, who mostly inhabit mountainous forests.
And yet many Mon do live in a small valley not far from the party's headquarters. Most are displaced villagers. They have fled both the inflict in Burma proper and continued harassment by Thai authorities who now look with impatience upon the arrival of more refugees from Burma.
It is a place without a name for a people without a home. And more are coming. About 200 new arrivals have come to the Pa Yaw refugee camp just over the border in Thailand, having fled the forced labour camps building the Ye-Tavoy railroad.
On Feb. 15th, however, a warm spirit mingled with the valley's cool mountain breezes. A patch of ground was cleared and labelled the "celebration area". for this was where party dignitaries, local villagers and Mon soldiers met to hold festivities to celebrate the 48th Mon National Day.
There was a small military ceremony marking the occasion. Mon troops brandishing weapons marched in front of party leaders, then patiently stood to attention while speeches were uttered. Banners were unfurled. Flags were raised. Drums were beaten.
But the celebration was hardly a military spectacle. It had more the air of a typical country temple fair, a bit smaller and poorer than the one taking place simultaneously in Sangkhlaburi to mark Makha Bucha Day, but no less festive.
The official ceremony itself lasted only an hour or two. There were no more than a few score troops, and the were joined in parade by students and various civilians affiliated with the party.
Most of the day was taken up by visiting rickety stalls selling snacks and spices whose scent seemed to waft all the way from India. Off-duty soldiers took shelter from the midday sun. Women sporting yellow powder drawn in elaborate designs on their faces milled around and showed off their toddlers.
Once the sun had set, the stage shows began, lasting throughout the night. Traditional songs and theatre tunes rang out over jerry-rigged amplifiers. Those seeking more modern entertainment huddled in front of a small TV to watch an impossibly corny Burmese drama.
But most all, Mon National Day was an occasion to meet family and friends who had been separated by circumstances. Men and women wearing traditional longyi, many of them visiting from the Thai side, posed for pictures and swapped stories.
Ot was a familiar face from Sangkhlaburi, many hard hours of driving away. He had come to visit his sister, who had decided to live here rather than move to Halockhani when the Loh Loe refugee camp was closed a year ago.
"We live our lives on both sides of the border," he explained with a smile. "Even though it is farther away from Sangkhlaburi, at least there is more land here. People can grow crops."
Similar festivities were probably going on throughout Burma because the Mon are allowed to celebrate their National Day there. "even in Rangoon". said Nai Hong Sa.
This raises the enticing question how do the Mon live in Burma proper? But with exception of Moulmein, foreigners are not allowed to visit Mon areas.
"Ben" (a pseudonym) is an NMSP official who has lived in Thailand for the last six years but recently travelled back into Burma to supervise Mon medics working there and check on the political situation.
"There is not much change from before, but the economic situation is generally worse in rural areas," he explained, adding that it is not safe for him to go to the cities. " People can't work regularly because of the fighting.
"Their main problem is being forced to work on the railroad. They know about the pipeline which will be built to transport gas from Monland/Burma to Thailand , and they understand that the railway construction is related.
There is certainly more prostitution than before, because it is hard to find work. And fishermen complain they can't fish as before. Most of them don't know it's because of the foreign trawlers which have been given concessions to fish along the coast.
" Many people are going abroad to look for work. A lot of men go to Singapore to work in the port."
But to rally visit Monland, you are best off travelling back in time. And Nai Shwe Kyin is an excellent guide to take you there.
Officially chairman of the NMSP's central committee, the 81 year-old Nai Shwe Kyin is the leader of Mon resistance. People call him Ajaan, and before he will talk to reporters about current events-dire as they may be-he insists on giving them a history lesson.
"The Mon are an old nation." he begins. "Legend has it that the Buddha himself predicted its rise. On a visit to the region, he came across a promontory at the mouth of the Sittang River. There he saw two golden drakes, the female resting on the back of the male. and he smiled.
His disciple Ananda asked why.' This area will silt up," the Buddha answered, pointing to the river mouth, There my doctrine will survive'.
"In the third century BC, during the reign of Emperor Ashoka in India, Mon seafarers brought Buddhism to the area, which at that time was called Suwannaphum. Nearly a thousand year later, in 825 AD, the delta at the mouth of the Sittang had silted up. There, in what is today called Pegu, two brothers Samala and Vimala formed the first Mon Kingdom called Hongsawatoi.
"The Mon national day marks this event and is celebrated on the first day of the waning moon in the 11th month of the Mon's lunar calendar. The Mon flag, meanwhile. contains a golden dark in flight."
Very interesting. But Ajaan, what about the pipeline? What about the reports that the Burmese army is sending in reinforcements, perhaps to attack you?
The resistance leader, however, will not be hurried. And soon we understand why. For Nai Shwe Kyin takes the long view of national struggle.
He recounts how time and again the Mon rose up, often gaining their own state for hundreds of years, but eventually being beaten by the Burmese.
The Mon were finally conquered in 1757, just 10 years before the Burmese went on to sack Ayutthaya. Following their defeat, many Mon fled to Siam where they settled in Pathum Thani. Three more times the Mon rose up, losing and fleeing to Siam each time; the first group went to Phrapadaeng where the Mon New Year is still celebrated at Songkran: the second group went to Samut Sakhon; and finally in 1814, just before the British came, Mon rebels fled to Putaram in Ratchburi.
"Former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun is a descendant of that group," Nai Shwe Kyin proudly noted. "The Mon who went to Thailand were the elite. They've done well."
But here is the moral of the story: " They Burmese army thrives on civil war. They don't want peace. But the lesson from Burmese history is, unity through force never lasts. Slorc thinks it can control the country through force, but unless it solves the political problems, peace will not be permanent."
Perhaps. But Nai Shwe Kyin must admit that things are now looking grim for apposition groups in Burma. With the fall of Manerplaw and the KNU in disarray, the Mon forces- with far fewer troops than the Karen, not to mention Slorc- seem extremely vulnerable.
Once again, however, the Mon leader insists on putting current events in context. This time he delves into his personal history.
"I was a government officer before the war, and then I joined the anti fascist forces. My brother was tortures to death by the Japanese.
In 1947 the year Mon leaders first established the Mon National Day there was an election. But is was rigged and the Mon politicians lost.
"Six of us then made seven demands to the government led by U Nu. We did not call for our own state. We asked for the establishment of ' Mon Affairs Council', our own army battalion under the control of the central government , and for parliamentary representation in accord with the size of our population.
"But the Burmese were intoxicated by independence and rejected our demands."
In 1948, he said, the Mon Freedom League occupied Moulmein and Thaton. Nai Shwe Kyin was arrested, but he rejoined the Mon resistance in 1952 after being released.
In 1958, the leaders of the Mon United Front got disheartened and legalized themselves, surrendering their weapons to the government. But the organization was later abolished anyway by Ne Win.
"I was left to rebuild from scratch. We started with farmers. But now we have graduates with a higher standard of knowledge. They will carry on the struggle.
"In my younger days, no one dared to speak Mon in Moulmein. But now there are signboards in Mon, even in Rangoon. Our struggle has not been wasted. The Mon have regained consciousness."
Confirming such claims is impossible, since travel within Mon areas in Burma is forbidden. Nai Hong Sa says there are 4 million Mon in Burma, but only 2 million of them speak the language well.
But just how much do the Mon leaders listen to their people? It's a timely question, given that the KNU's recent schism and military setback is being blamed on leaders who failed to pay attention to the grass roots.
Unlike Karen chief Bo Mya, Nai Shwe Kyin is clearly a politician by nature. He is frail with age, but obviously still lucid. An avid reader of newspapers, he clearly keeps up with current events.
Some analysts say he does not command the military respect of the former Mon leader No La, whose death in 1990 led to the capture of Three Pagodas Pass by Slorc. But perhaps, Nai Shwe Kyin's political skills can help keep the Mon more unified than the Karen.
The NMSP's decisions are made a central committee meeting, which are last for weeks, much to the annoyance of impatient observers. " We are a democracy." Nai Shwe Kyin claim. " We listen to reports from the townships and then decide by consensus."
He suggested the next such meeting would take place next month. They will have to decide whether to restart negotiations with Slorc.
Ben, the political scout, claims the Mon in Burma are of two opinion. "Some are tired of war and want us to put down our arms. But others remember what happened in 1959, when Burma still had a democratic government. They want us to negotiate with Slorc but not to surrender out weapons. Military regimes never keep their promises.'
"The best solution is the one suggested by the UN General Assembly. Slorc should sit down with the democratic opposition and the ethnic groups and talk." says Nai Shwe Kyin. " If Slorc does not offer concessions there will be no agreement. Otherwise, what's the use of fighting for 46 years?"
And if Slorc decides to continue its military offensive until even the current confined version of Monland is no more?
Nai Shwe Kyin offers a simple response: " If we are beaten, the next generation will carry on."
On a personal level, he adds, he has no regret. " I have never felt disheartened. Even now, with the fall of Manerplaw I don't feel disheartened. By hook or by crook, we must get political power. The Burmanized Mon will then return to their roots.
" You must sacrifice your lit fighting for freedom. We are fighting for a just cause. We have to show it world the Mon are worth saving."