Mon girls in Mawlamyaing, Myanmar

The Mon are an ethnic group that lives primarily in Myanmar but are also found in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. There are an old group that has been in Burma for over a thousand years and in Thailand at least 450 years and were largely independent and had a great empire until they were defeated by the Burmese in 1757. Also known as the Mun, Peguan, Talaing, Taleng, the Mon are the principal Burma branch of the Mon-Khmer ethnic group and the remnant of the first great civilization to dominate Southeast Asia. They live primarily in villages located in monsoon-climatic areas roughly between 13° and 17° N and share territory with the dominant Burmese ethnic group, the Bamar. Mon practice Theravada Buddhism like the Burmese and Thais.

The total population of Mon is estimated to be around 1.7 million with 1.1 million in Myanmar (Burma), 200,000 in Thailand and 1,000 in Laos. But these numbers are far from being etched in stone. Some suggest there are three million Mons scattered around southern Myanmar. In 1983 the Mon (Mun, Peguan, Talaing, Taleng) numbered about 835,000 in Myanmar and between 70,000 and 100,000 in Thailand, with smaller numbers in Cambodia and Vietnam. An estimate in the 1990s suggested that there were 1.3 million Mon in Myanmar alone. If that figure was are accurate, it suggest that the Mon population nearly doubled between the 1930s and 1990s. [Source: Wikipedia, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 ]

Maybe a third of Mon still speak the Mon language in one form or another. Mon is an Austroasiatic language in Mon-Khmer group. In Myanmar, most also speak Burmese. For many Mon, Burmese is their first language. Although they have their own state in Myanmar and have been active in the ethnic insurgency against the Myanmar government they have largely been assimilated there. Still, some refuse to be assimilated.

Mon, Bamars (Burman), Pao, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan and Kayin inhabit Mon state. In 1983 the population was about 1,637, 200 and in 1996 it was 2.4 million. Majority of the inhabitant are Mons and Bamars. Mon state borders Bago division in the south of Sittaung River mouth in Kayin State in the east, Thailand and Tanintharyi Division to the south and the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Mottama to the west. Much of the state is dominated by jungle and by high and steep hills that continue to the west as far as the eye can see. Moulmein, capital of the “Mon state,” says the French magazine Le Monde is “a concept created by the Burmese government in 1974 to perpetuate the illusion that Mon people have their own territory.” [Source: Myanmar Travel Information, Le Monde]

Mon History

The Mon were the first major group of immigrants to arrive in present-day Burma. Originally from China, they appear to have settled in what is now northern Myanmar as early the third century B.C. The Mon were politically independent until 1757, when they were defeated by the Burmese. Today the Mon are involved in the insurgency movement against Myanmar's military government.

The Mon were a highly cultured Buddhist people with a classical North Indian heritage who settled in Central Burma. They were heavily influenced by Indian Hindu culture and Asoka Buddhist kingdom in India.. They established the Dvaravati Kingdom (A.D. 6th to 11th century) and several centers in mainland Southeast Asia. The Dvaravatis controlled the Menam Valley area from the 6th or 7th century to the 11th century. They were ultimately defeated by the Thais who absorbed much of their culture.

Mon woman in 1904

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma,” “The Mons are the earliest identifiable group to inhabit Burma and lived along the eastern coastal regions centered about the ancient city of Thaton. Although little is known about their origins or when they first settled in Burma, their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer family; similar Mon speaking groups settled in Thailand and Cambodia. Since the Mons occupied areas adjacent to the coast, it is not surprising that they were the first group in Burma to be influenced by Indian ideas. The Mons were the first to adopt the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Mon myths tell of two Mon brothers who visited India and received hair relics from the Buddha. The two brothers returned to Burma bearing their precious gifts that were encased in what has become the most revered Buddhist monument in Burma today, the Shwedagon, located at the center of the present capital, Rangoon. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies]

Pegu (50 miles from was established by the Mon in the 6th century, it was the capital of southern Myanmar in the 13th century, when the Mons ruled the region. In 1757, it was sacked and almost completely destroyed by the Burmese monarch, King Alaungpaya. See Myanmar History

Mon Life

The Mon have traditionally lived in villages in the lowlands and raised wet rice, sweet potatoes, pineapples and sugar cane and fished for consumption and money. Competition from Thai commercial vessels has caused Mon fishing to decline. The Mon are regarded as superb potters. Many still live in thatched roof houses without electricity. Many villages have a single ramshackle school with perhaps one teacher. Talaing Than are songs of the Mon minority.

The Mon traditional house is built of sticks. The living room is a step lower than the main part of the house. Crocodile shaped three-stringed musical instruments are displayed. In the living room, the Mon hang their traditional clothes. The significant item of Mon traditional house is a hole for talking love about affairs . This is often used by the ladies of the house to rendezvous in the forest with her boyfriend at at night. Sometimes Mon traditional dances are performed.

During the water splashing festival (Songkran. Thingyan) in Thailand, Mon residents of Phra Pradaeng District host unique Mon traditional ceremonies and folklore performances. The Loi Khamod festival, Luknoo festival, Mon Floating Boat festival and the Hongsa and Centipede Parade festival are also celebrated.

Mon Culture


The symbol of the Mon people is the hongsa, a mythological water bird that is often illustrated as a swan. Known in Burmese as the hintha and in Thai as the hongsa, it is he state symbol of Myanmar's Bago Region and Mon State, two places where Mon were traditionally been dominant. Mon people of Myanmar and Thailand today are the descendants of the medieval Dvaravati. Kingdom. [Source: Wikipedia]

Mon culture and traditional heritages includes spiritual dances and music made by musical instruments such as the kyam or "crocodile xylophone", the la gyan hsaing gong chime, the saung harp and a flat stringed instrument. Mon dances are usually performed formally in theater or sometimes informally at a district or village event. The dancers dance to music made by circular sets of tuned drums and claps, crocodile xylophone, gongs, flutes, flat guitars, harps, and violins.

Many games in both Myanmar and Thailand are of Mon origins. Among these are Len Saba (“saba tossing game”), Lor Kon Krok (“Rolling a Mortar Bottom”) and Mon Son Pa (“Mon Hides a Cloth”) are the most famous Mon traditional children games and have been suggested for placement on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Mon Food

Mon cuisines has significantly influenceed on Burmese and Central Thai cuisines. Some of most popular dishes in Myanmar and Thailand — such as Htamanè in Myanmar, and Khanom chin and Khao chae in Thailand — were originally Mon dishes. A traditional Mon dish served with rice soaked with cool candle-and-jasmine-scented water is consumed by the Mon people during the Thingyan (Songkran) Festival in the spring. In Thailand, the dish is known as Khao chae and is considered "royal cuisine". It is served during Thingyan as part of a merit-making ritual and is known as Thingyan rice in Myanmar today. As is true with Cambodian, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, fermented fish seasoning is a prime ingredient of Mon cuisine.

Mon-inspired dishes include: 1) Thingyan htamin, fully boiled rice in candle-smelt water served with mango salad; 2) Htamane, a dessert made from glutinous rice, shredded coconuts and peanuts; 3) Banana pudding, a dessert made from banana boiled in coconut milk and sugar; 4) Mohinga, a rice noodle and fish soup; 5) Nga baung thohk, mixed vegetables and prawn, wrapped in morinda leaves and then banana leaves outside; 6) Sa-nwin makin, a dessert cake made from semolina, sugar, butter, coconut. [Source: Wikipedia]

Among some other Mon inspired dishes are Khao Chae, Khao Khluk Kapi, Khanom Chin rice noodles and Nga baung thohk (steamed fish dish wrapped in banana leaves). Wet mohinga is like mohinga but the noodles are served while wet. Durian jam, also known as Katut jam, is popular.

Mon Clothes

Shwedagon crown

Mon women wrap their long hair around a comb and wear longyis and open-fronted blouses that button in the center.Mon women wear traditional shawl-like Sbai, known as Yat Toot in Mon language, diagonally over the chest covering one shoulder with one end dropping behind the back. This tradition distinguished Mon women from other ethnic groups in Myanmar. Archaeological evidence from the Dvaravati era portrays that Dvaravati ladies wearing what seems to be a piece of Sbai hanging from their shoulder.

Mon men in Myanmar wear clothes similar to the Bamars. Those living in Thailand have adopted Thai style garments. It seems that Mon clothing has been shaped through its dynastic traditions as well as external influences. Some Mon men wear red checkered longyis, shirts without collars and traditional jackets.

Mon longyi has red background, small red checks, bordered with horizontal stripes at the middle and looks something like in Kayin “longyi”. Bamar, Kachin, Mon, Shan, Kayah and Rakhine men wear a traditional jacket called a “teik -pon” over their “eingyi”. It is white, grey, black or terracotta in color. Burman, Kayin, Chin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan women’s “longyis” are nearly the same, made by cotton. A black waistband is stitched along the waist end. This waistband is folded in front to form a wide pleat, and then tucked behind the waistband to one side. Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Chin, Kayah, and Shan women’s” eingyis” are nearly the same, comprised of a form-fitting waist length blouse. Burman, Rakhine and Mon women put the shawl on their shoulders. Bamar, Mon and Radhine women wear beautiful flowers in their hair.

Mon National Liberation Army: Myanmar’s Least-Known Rebel Group

The Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA) is the armed wing of the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and has operated under a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw since 1995. It is confined to several non-contiguous areas within Mon state and northern Tenasserim (Taninthayi) division. Senior MNLA officers have declined to give information on troop strength but the group is one of Myanmar's smaller armed ethnic minority groups. It is believed to have about 1,000 troops based in the hills of southeast Myanmar. The red flag of the NMSP has a blue star and a golden sacred goose – the Mon mythical bird.

Reporting from Palaung, a Myanmar village close to the Thai border, Bruno Philip wrote in Le Monde, “A thin man is trying to charge up a group of camouflage-wearing, self-declared freedom fighters. The man, named Nay Han Hta, wears glasses with the look of a primary school teacher. Like all the other men in these regions, his mouth is red-stained from chewing betel leaves. The guerilla group he’s leading is not well-known, even if it was one of the first groups in the country to rebel against the regime — more than 60 years ago. The conflict started, among other things, because the Mon rebels refused to respect the constitution set up by the military dictatorship – which “self-dissolved” in the spring of 2011. [Source: Bruno Philip, Le Monde, January 20, 2013 ]

Mon State in Myanmar

“In a bamboo hut, about 50 soldiers are sitting on a row of benches, wearing their square caps. Some of them display intimidating ritual tattoos on their forearms. Nay Han Hta, the rebel group’s “Secretary general,”starts a long, grandiloquent speech listing the rebel group’s grievances, including the refusal by the Burmese government to create a Burmese federation granting ethnic minorities more autonomy. He reminds his men about what happened during military dictatorship and how the democratic uprising was crushed in 1988. What the Mon people want, he explains, is quite simple: “Complete autonomy in a Burmese federation.”

“Every time a soldier leaves for the bathroom, he salutes the chief, who is standing between his deputies. They are the “minister” of foreign affairs and the “5th brigade general,” whose military “jurisdiction” comprises the Palaung village and its 300 houses and 3,000 inhabitants. We are in a “liberated zone,” and it is clear that order and discipline rule. Outside, a sign reads: “Be ready to die for your country.” “We Mon people have our own identity. We are not Chinese, we are not Burmese, we are Mon!” says the chief. “In the Burmese schools, our brothers are forced to learn Burmese, and are not allowed to learn Mon. Because we are not Burmese – in the ethnic sense – we are cast aside,” he says.

“The separatist movement was born in 1948, when Burma became independent from the British Empire. Like every political group representing the ethnic minorities that comprise 30 percent of Burma’s population, it suffered from internal splits and power struggles, leading to violent and deadly spats among factions. In 1995, the NMSP signed a first ceasefire with the Burmese government. It was broken later but it still allows the group to control the zones bordering Thailand, which are de facto independent.

“The NMSP isn’t rich, its revenues come from taxes on the Thai-Burmese border trade, but the control they have on these territories shows some kind of administrative independence. Today, Pladonphite is Nay Han Hta’s destination. The village was built along a river, which has risen with the monsoon rain. It has a make-do clinic and a school. The heavy rain is resonating on the school’s corrugated iron roof. It’s recess time. The teachers – six for 46 students – don’t really believe in the perspective of long-term peace. “The Burmese do not respect who we are,” says Aye Chan, the 28-year-old principal. “War is still a possibility,” she worries. For this young woman, one of the grievances that the Burmese government should address is to allow Mon to be an official language — which is far from happening.

“You know,” says Nay Han Hta, “our struggle has been lengthy. I spent most of my life in the jungle. I know how difficult it is for Burmese people of this generation to change their attitude towards ethnic minorities.” He adds: “Especially for members of the military. Let’s not forget that behind this pseudo-democratic government, the generals are still pulling the strings.” Every measure announced by the government – the liberation of political prisoners, the partial repeal of censorship, the democratic reforms that have been changing the country this past year and a half – don’t seem to affect the Mon people, entrenched in their inaccessible jungle. And given the government, for whom “autonomy” means “secession,” the Mons’ thirst for freedom will not be quenched any time soon.

Myanmar Inks Peace Pact with Mon Rebels

In February 2012, AFP reported: “Myanmar has signed a preliminary peace agreement with separatists in southeast Mon State, official media reported, the latest in a series of deals with ethnic minority guerrillas. A delegation led by Railways Minister Aung Min and representative of the New Mon State Party agreed to observe a ceasefire, begin political dialogue and work together on education and healthcare, the New Light of Myanmar said. The authorities also pledged to free "comrades" of the party who are in prison, while both sides agreed to avoid forced labour, it added. [Source: AFP, February 26, 2012]

Mon musical instruments

Nay Han Hta, the MNLA’s “Secretary general,” said the truce clinched with the government in 2012 means nothing. “We are not happy with the political dialog engaged with the government,” he said. man. If the Burmese don’t compromise, “we will have to reconsider the ceasefire.” [Source: Bruno Philip, Le Monde, January 20, 2013]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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