The Mons under the Bamar/Burmans
From having lost their last kingdom, the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom, after being defeated by the forces of the founder of the Konbaung Dynasty, the Burman King Alaungpaya in 1757 until 1824, the beginning of the first Anglo-Burmese War during the reign of the Burman King Tharrawaddy Min, the Mon were under strict control of the Burman Konbaung dynasty. This was a period in which the Mons were – especially under King Alaungpaya – exposed to drastic Bamar measures of ethnic cleansing taken with the aim to completely eradicate the Mon people, their language and their culture resulting in a significant reduction of the Mon population in South Burma (the former Mon lands) due to mainly the killing of tens of thousands of Mons incl. children, women and monks, and the Mons mass exodus to neighbouring Thailand and into the Tenasserim. The Mon had lost their kingdom and political independence but not their national identity, language, autonomous culture and relatively high standard of civilisation. On the contrary, the will to fight to regain their independence was unbroken and all that was needed was a suitable opportunity for the Mon to free themselves from the yoke of Bamar/Burmans tyranny and establish an independent Mon kingdom.
The Mons under the British
One such opportunity seemed to offer itself 67 years after the end of the Restored Hanthawaddy kingdom with the unexpected arrival of the British in 1824 that marked the beginning of the first Anglo-Burmese War. The British requested the Mons’ support and help in their war against the Mons archenemies the Bamar. They did not have to ask twice for the Mons were more than willing to fight at the site of the British all the more so as the British promised to allow them to have their own independent Mon kingdom after the Bamar were defeated. The news travelled fast and hearing of the prospect to get back their traditional Mon homeland (or a part of it) in exchange for helping the British was motivation enough for as is said ‘tens of thousands’ of Mon to return from Siam to where they had fled to escape the cruelties of the Bamar.
Although the British had liberated the Mon from the Bamar/Burmans tyranny (a fact the importance of which should not be underestimated) and the Mon had not only helped the British to win the war but also to develop a profitable economy getting their own independent Mon kingdom turned out to be a fallacy because the British never honoured their promise; not after the first Anglo-Burmese War, not after the second Anglo-Burmese War, not after the third Anglo-Burmese War and not when releasing Burma into independence. This is something the British cannot be proud of, not at all.
In 1826, after having won the war and signed the Treaty of Yandabo the British put the Tenasserim under their rule and made Mawlamyine their first capital in British Burma. This, by the by, is the explanation for the many British colonial style buildings that do exist and are still used in present-day Mon state’s capital as well as the reason for the town’s large part that has been populated by many British and Anglo-British being dubbed ‘Little England’.
Mawlamyine is located opposite of Mottama that is situated on the other side of the Thanlwin River. Mottama was the last heavily fortified and defended stronghold of the Hanthawaddy kingdom and the Bamar/Burmans have it therefore completely destroyed in 1540. There is with the exception of a few remnants of the old palace site nothing left that reminds on the old times when the town was a prosperous capital and important sea port and trade centre. It is important that in this area excavations are continued in order to unearth remains of the town’s glorious past. Today, Mottama and Mawlamyine are connected by Burma’s longest bridge; the in 2006 completed and opened Thanlwin Bridge.
Mawlamyine (then called Moulmein) remained capital of British Burma till 1852. The British then moved the capital to Rangoon after having in the second Anglo-Burmese War annexed the Pegu region, which they named Lower Burma. The future Mon State flourished economically but in terms of independence and culturally it did not go so well.
The next time in which the Mon figured to stand a good chance to have their interests in being granted political and institutional rights as a separate identity within the Union of a new state taken seriously into account was the pre-independence time when General Aung San was negotiating the issue of Burma’s independence with the British. The Mon hoped they would this time be heard by Aung San and that he would be willing to negotiate and grand them like other minorities such as the Karen certain measures of autonomy within a new independent Burma.
To cut a long story short, Aung San’s negotiations with the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee led to the signing of an agreement on 27 January 1947 in London that Burma would be released into independence within one year, in other words, at the latest on 27 January 1948. After his return to Burma, Aung San put together a ‘shadow government’ to prepare for the time after independence. The Mon people’s interests were, alas, neither matter of discussion between Aung San and Attlee nor within Aung San’s party and interims government the AFPAL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League).
Six months prior to Burma’s independence from the British, Aung San, then Burma’s de facto Prime Minister, was assassinated on 19 July 1947 and U Nu took his place.
Burma became independent on 27 January 1948, and U Nu Prime Minister. The following 14 years would be an emotional roller-coaster for the Mons; years full of hope and disappointment in rapid succession.
The Mons in Independent Burma
After Burma’s independence the Mons did not get the political and institutional rights as a separate identity within the Union as they had wished for. Although they were granted some privileges such as the founding of a movement to support the revival of the Mon culture, the teaching of the Mon language in primary schools in Mon-populated areas and the celebration of an annual ‘Mon Day’ serving the purpose of Mon cultural displays by the Prime Minister U Nu, the Mon people were not content with the outcome. This time they were ready and willing to fight for what they (rightfully?) deemed their legitimate claims. The Mon resistance formulated it as follows:
“Our aim is to reclaim the traditional and historical homeland of the Mon people which were conquered by the Burmans in 1757 and which did not receive its own rights after independence from Great Britain in 1948. Our aim is to establish a sovereign state, unless the Bamar/Burmans government is willing to permit a confederation of free nationalities.”
The a.m. and the following needs to be seen against the backdrop that the Mons have once played a major role in the development of all of Southeast Asia and that they are not ‘just an ethnic minority’ of Burma. After all, they have ruled with their powerful kingdoms what is now Lower Burma (and beyond) for 1830 years and have – although not always out of free will – since 1057 substantially contributed to the development of the Bamar kingdoms and culture and that what makes up present-day Burma.
The Mon gave swiftly expression to their willingness to fight for their ‘rights’ in that their insurrection began already in March 1948 with the formation of the Mon National Defence Organisation (MNDO). Over the following years the Mon resistance cooperated closely with the Karen National Defence Organisation. The Mon and the Karen insurgencies fought jointly for independent states. The various Mon resistance groups that formed from 1948 till 1953 were in 1953 grouped together under the umbrella of the newly founded MPF, the Mon People’s Front and continued to struggle for the Mons’ political and cultural goals. These seemed to have almost been reached when in 1958 Burma’s Prime Minister U Nu within the framework of his ‘Arms for Democracy Offer’ agreed in principle to form, among others, a separate Mon State in the Union. In return and as a token of good will, the Mon People’s Front entered on 19 July 1958, on the 11th Martyrs Day, the day to commemorate Aung San’s assassination, into a ceasefire agreement and laid down arms. Something that was later by General Ne Win falsely called ‘the Mon’s surrender’ in order to distract from the fact that he had cheated the Mons by not honouring Prime Minister U Nu’s promise.
U Nu had made his promise because in the constitution from 1947 it was – as agreed upon in the Panglong Agreement of 1947 – stipulated, “… if the peoples of the non-Burman territories who were seeking independent statehood joined with the core Burman territories in the Union of Burma choose to do so they will in ten years have the option of seceding from that Union.” That is why U Nu tried to keep them within the Union by – although the Mon where (like the Arakanese) not represented at Panglong and not part of the agreement – promising them a certain measure of autonomy within the Union.
However, one factor (that turned out to be a very important one) was left out of the equation by both U Nu and the Mon: Ne Win. The a.m. – that people of non-Burmese territories were after 10 years free to leave the Union of Burma – was exactly Ne Win’s problem and he had, therefore, to act quickly. He carried out his first military coup (officially, it was said that U Nu had ‘invited’ him to temporarily take over the government) in 1958. With his ‘caretaker’ government he acted in breach of the Burmese constitution and put a stop to everything in terms of concessions made to ethnic minorities.
You may now ask why he did this. Here is the answer: with the Mon State, Arakan State, the Shan States, the Kachin, the Karen and Chin leaving the Union of Burma, Burma would have been left with almost nothing because virtually all of the country’s natural resources such as Jade, Rubies, Teak and 90 % of the country’s coastal regions are in non-Burmese territories. In the case of the Non-Burmese territories becoming independent, Burma would have been a very small and poor country surrounded by rich, independent States. This, by-the-by, is the reason for the till now ongoing civil war; the ethnic minorities are not willing to give away their in natural resources very rich territories without ado and the Burmans cannot afford to lose them. This is the main reason behind the so-called national cause: “Non-integration of the Nation”.
In response to the Burmans’ not keeping their promise the Mons immediately founded the New Mon State Party (NMSP) to continue the struggle while General Ne Win’s ‘caretaker government ‘prepared everything for the general elections that took place in 1960.
The next time the Mons saw a silver stripe at the horizon was in 1960 after U Nu’s election campaign promise to create an ethnically designed state for the Mons. U Nu was with a large majority again elected Prime Minister and for the Mons the future seemed to look bright but this was the creation of false expectations about what awaited them. Trouble with the Shan Federal Movement that insisted on the constitutional right to leave the Union led to very serious political problems and General Ne Win put a stop to all of this thereby sending also the Mons’ claim for and hope of an indipendend State within the Union forever into the realm of dreams by cancelling all promises and concessions made under U Nu.
In the attempt to justify why he denied the need for a separate Mon ethnicity, language and culture Ne Win, always ‘priding himself on’ being a Bamar/Burman, never missing to mention it and always talking proudly about ‘pure Bamar/Burman tradition and culture’ made a huge mistake by indirectly admitting that the Bamar/Burmans had what I call ‘stolen’ (he phrased it “incorporated in… “) everything that makes up the Mon culture which was much superior to the Bamar/Burman’ culture by saying and writing in one of his very few publications, “… the Mon tradition has been fully incorporated into Burmese national culture, and thus requires no distinct expression.” What a blunder! You get my point? I do not think that I have to further elaborate on that.
Supported by 16 other high ranking officers he staged his second coup d’etat on 2 March 1962, brutally removed all political rivals, took over not only the government but, literally, the country, declared Burma a ‘Socialist State’, put it under control of the ‘Union Revolutionary Council’ and sent it on the ‘Bamar/Burmans Way to Socialism’, which actually meant his (Ne Win’s) way to socialism. This way led quickly and straight to Burma’s becoming the least developed country on this planet and economical bankrupt.
The Mon kept on struggling for independence and in 1974 was out of parts of the Bago and Thaninthayi Division a pseudo-autonomous Mon State founded. However, the Mon resistance although now relatively small in number kept on fighting its guerrilla war. In 1988 the NMSP has been pleased to welcome more than one thousand politucal activists (many of them students) who had escaped the brutal military crackdown on the ‘8888’ (8 August 1988) pro-democracy uprising and the student-led protests prior to the nationwide up-rising. They were asking for getting military training to support the Mons’ struggle for an independent Mon state within the Union. The insurgency continued until 1995 when a ceasefire agreement was signed between the New Mon State Party and SLORC; needless to say that the military (tatmadaw) that had developed a strong presence did, again – or more precisely phrased ‘ as usual’ – not adhere to the agreement and continued operating in Mon state especially in remote and barely accessible jungle areas along the Thai border where they were (and still are although in decreasing number) extorting, smuggling, stealing, killing, destroying and raping without running the risk of ever being held accountable.
Ruling with an iron fist the military junta ruled Burma directly for the following 48 years till 2010 and indirectly for another 5 years after ‘free elections’ had transformed the military government into a military based ‘civilian’ government.
The elections in October 2016, won by a landslide by the NLD (National League for Democracy) under the leadership of the deceased General Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi (who is of Bamar decent), have helped to significantly curtail the military’s political power what is opening new windows of opportunity for the Mons. Not in terms of an independent state what as far as I know is not anymore what the majority of the Mons want but in terms of preserving and promoting Mon language and literature, Mon culture and history and, last but not least, Mon identity. That the ethnic Mon U Nai Thet Lwin has become part of the newly formed government as Minister of Ethnic Affairs will hopefully be of advantage in this respect. Nai Thet Lwin is the MNP’s (Mon National Party) vice-chairman and an well liked and respected. He has also very good connections to the New Mon State Party and other ethnic polotical parties who are united in the UNA (United Nationalities Alliance).
Present-day Mon State
For today’s Mon State traveller there is – especially when he is not well prepared – little evidence that he is travelling an area that was part of the former kingdoms of the people that have once ruled over large parts of modern-day Burma and who were once south-east Asia’s highest developed and most influential civilisation.
All what remains in present times of the Mons and their kingdoms is an area of 4,748 square miles /12,297 square kilometres named after its ethnic inhabitants ‘Mon State’.
At the time of this writing the Mon state has a population of some 2.2 million, is confined to the eastern part of the Mons’ traditional homeland, which was called ‘Monlands’ and located in present-day south-east Burma stretching along the Gulf of Martaban and the Andaman Sea in the west from the Bago Division in the north to the Tanintharyi Region and Thailand in the south. In the east the Mon State is bordered by the Kayin State.
The Mon State is divided into two major districts, namely Thaton and the Mawlamyine, which in turn are sub-divided into townships (10), wards (86), village tracts (377), and villages (1,182). The capital is Mawlamyine, which with a population of about 440.000 is the Mon State’s largest and (after Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw) Burma’s fourth-largest city.
The majority of the city’s population (about 75 %) is made up of Mon-speaking and non-Mon-speaking Mons, followed by Bamar, Pa-O, members of several other ethnic minorities from Shan State, Kachin, Kayin, Chin, Arakanese as well as Indians. Especially during the British colonial time Mawlamyine’s population included a large number of British and so-called Anglo-Burmans but most of them emigrated to the UK, the USA and Australia.
The headstones of the local cemetery with the many British, Scottish and Irish names on them are the pages in the history book of Mawlamyine telling the interesting story of the for the city immensely important British Colonial Era
Although a substantial number of the population are Christians the vast majority are Buddhists. There is also a smaller number of Muslims.
Irrespective of whether Mawlamyine was in Mon, Bamar or British ruled territory it has always been a leading sea port and developed especially under the British into the main centre of teak trade. This was a time in which it was the largest and most important port in the entire region that is covering Burma in its present boundaries. Nowadays, it has in importance fallen back on place three behind Yangon and Pathein but is now than ever for the region, in general, and the Mon State, in particular, a very important port. Last year (2015) the government of the Mon State has signed with the Myanmar Offshore Supply Base Ltd. a contract to build, construct and operate a new Mawlamyine port facility, which will be Burma’s largest project of its kind for Burma’s oil and gas industry and make Mawlamyine the second largest seaport with excellent air, sea, rail, road and communication connections. The Mon state government has also with quite promising results started to invite foreign investors to invest in Mawlamyine what would further improve the Mon State’s economy.
From the economical point of view Mon inhabited areas, what, of course, includes present-day Mon State, have always been superior to other areas that make up today’s Burma. Leaving out of the equation areas that are mining gems and jade even today the Mon State is at the top of the scale owing to its location, natural resources, sea ports and historically excellent trade relations to foreign countries such as present-days Cambodia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore.
The Mon State’s economy can be broken down into mainly agriculture and industry. Its economy comprises but is not limited to what is briefly described in the following.
Monsoon rice, summer rice, beans, sugar-cane
Durian, jack fruit, mangosteen, pomelo, lychee, rambutan, pineapple, papaya and mango
Peanuts, Betel nuts, Cashew nuts, chest nuts and coconuts
Hotel And Tourism
Salt, antimony, tin and white clay
Oil And Gas Industry
Fishery And Related Areas
Fresh fish, dry-fish, fish sauce, nga nga pi (fish paste)
Sea-food (shrimp, prawn, lobster, clams)
Agar-agar (gelatine powder made from algae)
Pulp and paper mills, sugar mills, textile mills, ceramics factories and rubber factories
Also contributing to the economy is, among other, shipping, general service, trade, import-export, handicraft.
How well the Mon state is doing compared to other Burmese states and divisions is not only but also reflected in the percentage of the respective population living below and/or above the poverty line. Unfortunately, there are as yet no income data available in Burma. However, according to consumption expenditure on food and non-food items assessed in the Integrated Household Living Conditions Assessment (IHLCA), 16 % of the Mon State population are living below the poverty line whereas an average 26 % of the population of the rest of Burma is living below the poverty line.