Last weekend, I was very happy to be able to go to the Mon Festival at Wat Ban Rai Charoenpol temple in Samut Sakhon. People of Mon descent came together from all over the country to celebrate their heritage and also to promote the use of the Mon language which is in danger of dying out. The Mon people are an ethnic minority in South-East Asia. They originally came from Southern Burma where they were once rulers of their own kingdom. Due to persecution and wars, they have fled their homeland and can be found in neighbouring countries. Thailand, due to its juxtaposition to Burma, is a poplar destination. It is estimated that 30 provinces around Thailand have Mon communities. Many of them seem to be in the Phra Phradaeng District of Samut Prakan, Pak Kret district in Nonthaburi and Samut Sakhon Province. In the latter province, there are believed to be 200,000 migrant workers from Burma of which 70-80% are ethnic Mons.
The cultural festival started with a Swan and Centipede Parade similar to the one I have written about before in Phra Pradaeng during Songkran. The parade reminds the Mon people of their homeland. According to legend, Buddha once went to Burma where he saw two swans swimming next to an island. He named this land Hongsawadee. Over the years the island expanded and eventually the Mon people settled there. The word “hongsa” means swan. The Buddha also predicted that Buddhism would prosper here. In fact, the Mon people are credited with bringing Theravada Buddhism to Thailand as well as many other cultural activities. The Centipede Flag represents that Buddha’s teaching. The claws of the centipede show that the Mon people will never be afraid of their enemies. The Centipede Flag is often hung on the Swan Pole in Mon temples.
As well as the parade, there were demonstrations of Mon culture as well as their food. This annual festival was probably more subdued compared to past years. This is mainly due to the persecution by local authorities of the ethnic minorities. The following letter from the Governor of Samut Sakhon highlights the feelings of local government regarding the Mon people:
To: Office of Employment of Samut Sakhon province and employers of all factories.
We now have many foreign workers from Burma, Laos and Cambodia who have come to work in factories in Samut Sakhon province, both legally and illegally. These people have created problems that could affect the foreign worker community and their employment conditions. Many of these Burmese workers are living together in one place and they create problems that affect their health, their dependants, their children not having Thai citizenship. They also have criminal problems, and problems where they do not follow Thai law.
They are also now trying to organise cultural performances at social occasions and fairs, which is not suitable. These activities should not be supported because it will make the community feel that these people are the owners of the community, and it could also create security problems. Also, it is contradictory to the government’s objective for them to be just temporary workers. Hence we would like to ask every place of employment and factory to control and monitor foreign workers under their responsibility, to check if they behave and work strictly according to the law. If they violate the law, they will be seriously punished. We should not allow them to organise cultural ceremonies at all.
Please be informed and follow these regulations accordingly.
Governor of Samut Sakhon Province
Provincial Administration Office
What he doesn’t realize is how much of the Mon culture has already been integrated into Thai culture. So much so, sometimes it is hard to differentiate between the two. Personally I think the Mon culture is fascinating and that it should be preserved as a living culture and language. For Thai people, it should remind them of their own cultural heritage. I have uploaded video clips taken at this festival to the Paknam Web Forums. You will also find newspaper clippings about the festival.