The Mon are the oldest civilisation in the South East Asia region. Once a powerful empire whose lands and influence stretched across the Indo-China mainland, they are responsible for the introduction of Buddhism to the region and can attest to the oldest script in the region dating back to at least the 500’s AD. Their empire grew on trade with India and Sri Lanka and their capital, The Golden Land, was known by the ancient Greeks and Romans (a 1st century Roman emissary to China passed through Mon territory and left behind coins and a lamp). The fall of the restored Mon/Hanthawaddy Kingdom to the Burmese in the middle of the 18th Century was catastrophic for this aged empire, as many of their political and cultural leaders fled to Thailand, the Mon language and literature was outlawed and, in the interests of self-preservation the Mon intermarried with the conquering Burmese who co-opted Mon cultural and religious practices as their own. By the turn of the 20th Century, British colonial administrators recorded the remnants of the Mon in a sliver of land along the Martaban coast and declared the Mon language and literature to be almost extinct with fewer native speakers every year.
The Mon Literature and Culture Committee was set up in Yangon in 1972 to reverse this trend and attempt to restore Mon literature to its once historic position.
There are actually two MLCC’s, one in Yangon, and one in Mon state. The Yangon iteration registered itself with the Ministry of Home Affairs which allowed it to receive donations from the Mon exile community overseas; the committee in Mon State refused to have military government oversight and remained in a legal grey area until the transition. Both MLCC’s run their own projects and activities and will collaborate if these overlap, both suffer from the politicisation of the committee. As ethnic political parties were banned after the 1990 military coup, former politicians began to see the MLCC’s as a place to regroup and began to influence the direction of the committee away from literature and culture and towards to political ideals. From 2011 to 2014, the MLCC in Yangon was committed fully to the census recording of ethnic Mon in Yangon to qualify for a permanent Mon representative in the Yangon regional parliament. No literature activities were held save for the quarterly Mon language journal, Amartdein.
In Mon State, the MLCC would regularly hold annual summer camps, (when the Burmese military commanders in the ground would let them) for the youth, where they would teach Mon language and literature – though under the guise of Buddhist propagation.
To read more about the Mon, their censored literature and my travels with them, take a look at my award-shortlisted political travel book, ‘The People Elsewhere: Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar’.