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Burma's exiled ethnic nationalities seminar held in North America

Literature, culture and ethnic identity

INTERVIEW: AN EVENING WITH NAI YEN NI

Kao-Wao conducted an interview with Nai Yen Ni (P. Nop), author of “Tangay: the Setting Sun of Ramanya” and a founder of the Mon Culture and Literature Survival Project (MCL).  P. Nop (aka) Nai Yen Ni is living with the Mon community at Thailand-Burma border and working on his Ph.D thesis about the Mon people.

KW:     Please give us an introduction to yourself.

PN:     I was born and educated in Switzerland. When I was 17 years old, I came to Thailand for a year as an exchange student. This experience determined the further way of my life. I became interested in Thailand and its neighboring countries, especially Burma, which at that time was pretty much off-limits and therefore had a mysterious feeling about it.  I returned to Switzerland to complete high school and planned to re-visit Thailand before continuing my studies in Switzerland. The planned three-month visit turned out to be a permanent stay.  I went to a teachers’ college in Bangkok, majoring in Thai, and then worked as a teacher at an international school in Bangkok for some years.  In 1995, I returned to Switzerland to continue studying at Zurich University, from which I graduated in 2000 (general linguistics, specializing in Southeast Asian languages). Right now, I am working on my PhD thesis, which fortunately is sponsored by Zurich University.

KW:     What is the aim of the Mon Culture and Literature Survival Project (MCL) you have founded?

PN:     I had been doing basic research on the Mon language for some time when I met a man who started a conversation with me (he had overheard my trying to order some food in Mon at the Sonkalia Resort in Sankhlaburi).   He quickly became one of my most important contacts in Mon society. His name, Nai Ok Pung, is well known as the creator of Mon fonts for Windows and publisher of many Mon books. We found that by joining forces we could create much better results than either of us could by working alone. In order to formalize our efforts, we later founded the MCL and registered the association in Switzerland. Luckily, an American friend, Mr. Gregory Gaskill, was kind enough to design and host a website free of charge and this gave us an opportunity of going international.

The basic aim of the MCL is to make the Mon people known to the world. We want to promote research in Mon culture in all its aspects, and wherever possible to coordinate cooperation with Western institutions. The final goal of the MCL can be said to be the preservation of Mon culture not only as an interesting historical subject of study, but also as a living culture, lived by Mon people and appreciated by foreigners.

This we hope to achieve by publishing articles on the Mon in English and Mon, by translating Mon literature into English (which has not been done since Halliday almost a hundred years ago), and by teaching Mon children and adults cultural skills, such as reading and writing in Mon and practising traditional music, as well as English and computer classes. Our library in Sangkhlaburi houses an extensive collection of books on Mon and Southeast Asian culture and history in English, Thai, Mon, and Burmese.

KW:     What is your impression of the Mon community in Sangkhlaburi?

PN:     My personal impression of the community is very good. The people make it easy for me as a foreigner to live in the village. What is missing to some extent, in my opinion, is a sense of cooperation and interest in their own culture. Many people seem to be preoccupied with making money, which is more than understandable given the less than bright economic situation of most people here. Thaiization of the society has proceeded to some extent, but fortunately not to such a degree that Mon is no longer spoken.

I am happy to hear children speaking Mon with each other when playing (though mixed with a good portion of Thai vocabulary) and observing Mon traditions to quite an extent in their everyday lives. Sangkhlaburi has all the potential to act as a center for the Mon people, hopefully, more in cultural than in the political realm. The community enjoys the relative freedom of living and operating in Thailand, with easy access to the internet and other infrastructure, yet it is very close to Monland and in constant communication with Mon communities inside Burma. The limited possibilities of traveling inside Thailand for the Mon people of Sangkhlaburi can be seen as a boon for the Mon nation, although this seems paradoxical. These travel restrictions hold together a community, which would otherwise certainly break apart with most skilled people going to work in Thailand.

KW:     What books you have published and planned?

PN:     In 1997, I published “Tangay:  the Setting Sun of Ramanya”, a novel telling the story of a young Mon boy in the Three Pagodas Pass area at the time of the Burmese conquest in 1990. The story, though fiction, is based on real life facts and is intended to give the reader an idea of the history and culture of the Mon people, as well as the social and political problems they are facing. The book was published in English but a Mon translation is currently underway.

Other publications are more technical, such as a paper on the Burmese classifier system and a longer article on the verbal aspect system of Thai, articles on bilingualism and English usage in Southeast Asia, etc., besides a book on complementary medicine (as co-editor).

KW:     What books you are working on?

PN:     Presently I am working on a description of the Mon verb system, which hopefully will be part of a complete Mon grammar. I also hope to finish translations of some Mon literary works in English soon (the story of Sangada, Rajadhiraj). Together with Nai Ok Pung I am working on a Mon-Thai-English dictionary project which we hope to be able to complete within about four years.

KW:     What are the reasons for doing research about the Mon?

PN:     Since I first read and heard about the people called “Mon”, the name had some hidden mysteries which I wanted to get to know and understand. The first thing I learned was that the Mon are an ancient civilization, which covered much of Southeast Asia. I felt a certain similarity to the Celts in Europe, a people which has fascinated me since I was a child. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I believe the Celts and Mon to be related peoples, but they share a similar fate, being more interested in religion and arts than in war and power. It was this original fascination for a mysterious people that led me to pursue the research up to now. The mystery at some point turned into deep respect for this beautiful and ancient culture, which has produced not only great artifacts but also a population which continues to hold  to their distinct way of life and language, even after 250 years without a country of their own

KW:     What hopes do you hold out for the Mon in Burma’s future.

NP:     My answer to this question will not be very popular with most of your readers, I am afraid. I must admit that I do not think that Monland should be an independent country on its own. I do not think that the Mon administration is ready yet for such a task. I would prefer to see a confederation of Burma (or call it something different, if an appropriate and neutral name can be found), which would be a multilingual and multiracial state, comparable to Switzerland.

I would like to see Mon culture being practiced freely, Mon language used at schools and in the media. I am not eager to see a Mon bureaucracy arise. Remember that Mon culture has survived for almost two thousand years of recorded history, whereas Mon politics was much less successful. That Mon (and other minorities’) language use has been suppressed in Burma for a long time may be another paradoxical boon. Just by using Mon, one can make a political statement without saying anything political. In Ireland, where Gaelic is a national language and a compulsory subject at school, hardly anyone speaks it nowadays, English being the only widely spoken language in the country. Strong government support in Ireland could not stop the Gaelic language from dying, but maybe government suppression in Burma helped the survival of the Mon language. Of course, this is only one good aspect among many bad ones of the Burmese government’s suppression of ethnic minorities.  

KW:     How do you see the future of the Mon in Thailand and Burma, given the controversy of Mon as a dying language?

NP:     The Mon as a people in Thailand are well adapted and almost completely assimilated to the Thai majority. In spite of the efforts being made to revive the Mon language in Thailand, it is unlikely to survive as a spoken language over the next three or four decades. In all Mon communities I visited in Thailand, only people aged around 60 and older actually spoke Mon, and they often seem to have a hard time remembering the correct Mon words, mixing Thai words freely into their Mon sentences, which very often exhibit Thai rather than Mon syntax. I believe that Mon will remain in the knowledge of an intellectual Thai-Raman elite, but not as part of everyday life. The same is true for other aspects of Mon culture in Thailand. 

Colorful celebrations of Songkran (New Year) festival in Mon communities in Thailand do not really represent living culture, but rather folkloristic shows. The situation is completely different for the Mon in Burma (and Sangkhlaburi).

I am convinced that the Mon as a distinct ethnic people will survive for many years to come, keeping their traditions and language alive. Many traditions of course have been assimilated to Burmese culture, but as the Burmese culture is largely based on Mon, it is difficult to tell who assimilated to whom. After six years I re-visited Mon State last month and I was delighted to hear Mon spoken everywhere even in downtown Moulmein, which six years ago was linguistically speaking almost purely Burmese.  Mon books are readily available at the market, whereas six years ago the question for literature in Mon produced only shy or even scared negative answers. Popular and classical Mon music is recorded, and some ten Karaoke VCDs have been produced so far, giving further motivation to young people to read their own language.

I also visited Mon schools in villages south of Moulmein, which as a result of the cease-fire are allowed to teach children in Mon State. In one village there are some 400 pupils from grade one through ten, while in the neighboring community the number of Mon pupils is about 500.

I definitely got the impression that Mon language use has been increasing over the last six years, and the same is true for literacy in Mon. There is some influence from Burmese in Mon (the same is true the other way round, too, by the way), but as long as the influence is only on the vocabulary level, I don’t see a threat to the language as such. More dangerous are influences in the sentence structure, because they go much deeper than vocabulary loans. Fortunately there are very few such structural Burmanism in the spoken language. On the other hand, these influences can be seen quite often in newer written texts, including textbooks and newspapers. This development is rather alarming!

KW:     Please give us your ideas about preserving the present Mon literature and culture.

NP:     The Mon are blessed with a very ancient and rich culture and literature. Mon inscriptions date back to the 6th century and the language used in Pagan inscriptions during the reigns of Anawrahta and Kyansittha was mostly Mon, a beautifully elaborate Mon. The Mon classics dating from the 18th century onwards are preserved on palm leaves, thousands of which can be found in monasteries in both Thailand and Burma. Many texts have been published in printed form in recent times. This makes a good part of Mon literature available (and affordable) to the interested public.

Unfortunately, not many people seem to be either interested or able to read classical Mon literature. If read thoroughly and carefully, these texts can be a rich source for any textbook and dictionary of the Mon language.  But a book can only be of any use if there are people reading it. At present, the number of people reading “serious” Mon literature is deplorably small. What is needed for Mon literature to survive is an intellectual elite that is truly interested in reading and passing on their love for books to other people, if necessary by writing “books based on books”, using simpler language than the original texts. There is probably no society in the world where classical literature forms part of everyday life, but every literature needs an elite of people to keep it alive. This is done partly at schools and universities. Mon literature is not taught at any university, which means that even more effort has to be put in the task by the people concerned with Mon culture and literature.

There is commendable work being done in collecting and registering Mon palm leaves, but this is only a start. It is up to the Mon people to start reading and enjoying the literature their people have created over the centuries. And it does not take much to see the beauty of Mon literature. Just take a glimpse at old inscriptions or the works by Aca Acwo’ (also spelt Hwo, Ajwo, Fo, etc.).

Bringing Mon literature to the attention of the global community is another thing, of course, and has to depend on translations. As mentioned above, the MCL is working on this task. What I have said about literature is, mutatis mutandis, also true for other aspects of Mon culture. Only by actively practicing can culture be preserved. This again is up the Mon people, of course.


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