After being heavily attacked by Spanish troops, on September 11th, 1714, the nation of Catalonia lost its freedom. Since then, Catalonia has been under Spanish laws and rulers. Today, September 11th, 2008, I bear it in mind, even though I am in Thailand. The link I maintain with part of the Shan community in Chiang Mai, further strengthens my beliefs. Like the Catalans, the Shan have also lost their freedom.
The Shan are an ethnic group established mainly in the Shan States. The Shan States are formed by thirty-four territories federated with the Myanmar Union, official name of the old Burma. Throughout the years, the coups d’état and the toughening of the politics have left the word federated as a purely rhetoric symbol. The Shan, as other people who form the State of Burma, are under administrative, political and military control of the gloomy Yangon Regime. The brutality of the council who rule the Myanmar Union is widely known.
The Shan state stretches over an area of 155,800 sq. m. It is five times the size of Catalonia. The population is estimated at around 5 and 6 million inhabitants. Since they were denied the right of self-determination in 1957, the Shan have a declared war on the Burmese. It is the resistance to assimilation, the fight to live as a nation. The military junta has as a main goal the annihilation of the cultural diversity of the territory which aims to control. Its cunning arguments are quite diverse but they all result in the same: brute force. The Shan are one of the ethnic and cultural minorities to knock down. The junta allocates an important share of its strategic and military resources against the Shan. They hate their idiosyncrasy, which is reflected in their own culture and language. The cover for their massacre is the drug trade. Indeed, the Shan States cultivate large extensions of opium. On the pretext that they want to eradicate opium, they treat them brutally. However, the truth is that the persecution of the Shan goes beyond the fight against narcotics. But, actually, what the military would like is to take possession of the opium crops for their own benefit, not to eliminate them. The Shan defend themselves from the Burmese with their own army. The frequent conflicts between both factions keep the land of the Shan at permanent war: fires in villages, murder and rape. Among other atrocities, the Burmese junta forces captured youngsters to join the army (to attack their own town) or enslaves them making them build roads from dawn to dusk, without giving them any money and hardly any food.
This brutal situation forces many Shan to leave the country. A great number of them are in the northern part of Thailand. There, they find stability and are able to earn a living, however precariously. Although they fled from their country due to the repression and persecution that they’re under —they’re fleeing from full-on genocide— Thailand doesn’t give them the status of refugees. The Shan who are not born in Thailand are tolerated, but aren’t recognized. They aren’t properly there. That’s why the jobs they find are unstable and fragile. They are badly-paid jobs that nobody wants to do.
In Chiang Mai there is an important Shan community. The Shan who live in Chiang Mai also have their temples, like the Wat Pa Pao. Nine monks and sixteen novices live in this monastery. All Buddhist monks belong to the Shan ethnic group. The temple is an oasis of peace in the midst of Chiang Mai. Once you’ve been through the fence of the Wat Pa Pao, you are in a temple which is totally different from many other temples in the city. The layout of the areas devoted to worship, the pavilions for the meetings with laymen and laywomen, the refectory and the architecture are completely Shan. Inside the monastery, beside Thai, Shan is the mainly spoken language. Of course, they pay all the necessary taxes to be in Thailand. The photographs of Thai monarchy are where they should be and so is their flag. And some of the explanatory posters we see in different rooms are bilingual. They’re written both in the Shan and the Thai alphabet.
Not long ago I went to the monastery with the intention of talking to the abbot. I told him that I would like to study Shan. Now, there is a monk at my disposal who, every day, guides me through the intricate paths of this language. Thai and Shan certainly belong to the same language root. Both are tonal and monosyllabic, but the distance from one and the other is considerable. And there’s a plus: the alphabet is completely different.
Today, September 11th, when we were about to finish, it started to rain heavily. I stood up to see that magnificent sight of water falling. About seven or eight novices went out to celebrate it in the open air. The joy of the children was immeasurable. At times, the showers were so thick that it was difficult to see anything but water. The young, completely drenched, played, jumped, shouted and shoved each other to the puddles of water, rode bicycles and threw themselves onto the mosaic floor around the chedi. They slid on their stomach, on their back or even standing on the blue tiles, dotted with scented white flowers which had fallen from the trees.
The religious community of the temple is happy at times. They’re happy when they don’t remember that their people are being persecuted. They aren’t in their country but they always bear it in mind. Like them, I’m happy while I don’t remember the prostration of my country, Catalonia, physically so far away. Today it is obligatory to remember it. To remember the blatant lies of the enemies, of those who want us extinct, of those who want to make us bleed. Like the Shan, I hope to see my country stand up proudly, without its hands manacled. As free as the novices under the rain.
(Translated from its original Catalan –Onze de Setembre/Els shan– to English by Simon Conway)