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  • The Mons. A Civilization of Southeast Asia
  • Tilman Frasch
The Mons. A Civilization of Southeast Asia. Emmanuel Guillon. Bangkok: The Siam Society, 1999. 349 pp. ISBN 974-8298-44-2.

It does not seem to be too far from truth to state that the Mons have received relatively little scholarly attention so far, if compared to other Southeast Asian peoples. For whatever reason that this may be, the present study of the French philologist Emmanuel Guillon represents the first large-scale attempt to make good for this gap by writing the history of the Mons. In fact, both the author's reputation as a leading scholar of Mon language, and the format of the book (349 pages, foolscap size, with many colored illustrations) suggest that we have a reference work in hand.

The book consists of two parts. In the first part, Guillon approaches the phenomenon [End Page 170] "Mon" by describing the components that shape their identity: language and script, ethnicity and belief system. The second part, entitled "A long history," covers the period from the formation of the first polities in the third millennium B.C. to the present, including the first blossoming of Mon culture in central Thailand (the kingdom of Dvaravati), the "classical Mon period" during the Pagan times, and the Mon states of Lower Burma between 1281 and 1754; not to forget the Mon renaissance in seventeenth-century northern Thailand. Five appendices provide additional information on palaeography, chronology, a short history of Mon studies, and two glossaries on Buddhist texts and Mon words. The author has used a wide range of written texts including Mon historiographies and inscriptions, the oldest of which date bac k to the sixth century A.D.

The great expectations that are roused by the outer appearance of the book are however hardly met with by its contents. Basically, the book has three major weaknesses. First, it is, by and large, a compilation of dates and facts on Mon language, art, and culture without any theoretical reflection or methodological concept. This is certainly not enough for a study that undertakes to provide a general history of the Mon people.

Second, the book is quite outdated. The original French version of the manuscript was finalized in 1969, but apart from those few areas which were among Guillon's main research interest (i.e., Mon epigraphy and language), it has hardly been updated since. On page 170, for example, it is stated that the Buddha reached parinirvana in the year 543 according to the tradition of the southern Buddhists, in contrast to Sanskrit sources which put it between the years 478 and 486 B.C., a statement that completely ignores the relevant writings of Bechert on this topic(apart from being wrong insofar as the 486 era was a creation of Indologists who tried to reconcile the 544 era with the date of the Indian king Ashoka). Or look at what is said about the kingdom Pagan, the early phase of which is earmarked nothing less than the "classical age" of the Mons. Research on early Burma published after 1980 is completely ignored; even though studies by Michael Aung-Thwin, Janice Stargardt, and the present reviewer have, each one in his (or her) own way, contributed to a balanced view of the Pyus and Mons and their respective influence upon Pagan, by making thorough use of the available epigraphical, historiographical, and archaeological data. Instead, Guillon mainly quotes from Luce who—with full respect to his pioneering research on early Burma—seems to have overestimated the contribution of the Mons to the Pagan kingdom. Quite paradoxically, Luce is treated critically only on occasions when it appears to be unnecessary or even wrong. Thus, Sudhammâpura is translated as "Great Assembly Hall of the Gods of the Heaven of the Thirty-three" ( p. 104) against Luce's version "City of the Good Law" merely because of the long â. If the lengthening of vowels had indeed to be taken that seriously, a good number of ministers in Pagan would have been female, as their names end with long â (Satyâ, Asankhyâ, etc.). Obviously, the long vowel is euphonic, and Thaton/Sudhammapura can still be considered...