Piang Luang: Historical lands and changes (1)
Gen Mo Heng
Gen Mo Heng
Ban Lak Taeng
Wat Fa Wiang In
Someone once told me Piang Luang is waiting for us to explore.
Perhaps that's true-whenever the name Piang Luang is mentioned, it brings me immense pleasure, the fresh, delightful breeze of orange-blossom.
How sad I am, though, to recall Piang Luang through the historical struggle of the Tai people against the Burmese rulers' oppression and intolerance to ethnic differences. Many call Piang Luang a community of ethnic minorities, a diaspora.
Perhaps that is true too - a people blown away by the wind of conflict in the land of war before settling here - - in "Piang Luang" a community of diversity bordering Thailand and Burma, west of Chiang Mai's small district town of Wiang Haeng.
Diverse it is because of its residents; people of many ethnic identities who have for centuries mingled and cross-communicated their livelihoods, culture and customs. Among the village's residents, the ethnic Tai, the first settlers, who had migrated from Burma's Shan state, are the majority. Another big group comprises former soldiers of the nationalist Kuomintang who fled fighting with the Chinese communists southward to Yunnan and then to Shan State before settling at Piang Luang.
There are also northern Thai people, ethnic Lisu and Paluang living together in this village. One must learn to know Piang Luang thorough its historical past, the struggle of the Tai against the Burman, the Tai relationship with Thailand and its people, and its social and cultural richness.
The Tai had their golden era. Most of them live in Shan State of Burma where they are called Shan (a corruption of Burmese pronunciation of Siam). Chinese in Yunnan Province know them as the Sem. Nothern Thai people use a derogatory for them, Ngieo, which is disliked by the Tai. Tai is the preferable term, though they are also referred to as Tai Yai (the great Tai).
Tracing Tai history into Piang Luang
"The land of freedom of the Tai
Accorded by the Panglong Agreement
Why so denied?
The traitor is known
Not us, Tai
The promise at Panglong
Should it be blown away
With Aung San?
This song "Lik Hom Mai Panglong" (Panglong agreement) haunts the minds of most Tai, particularly those displaced from their homeland. Sai Mao, its composer and singer, served two years in prison under the Burmese military junta. Like the lyrics, parts of Tai history were unforgettably painful.
Long before the British colonisation of Burma, the Tai people had their own culture and language. Their leaders, hereditary chiefs, called saopha (Lord of Heaven), each ruled over 33 principalities in the Shan State, writes Wandee Santiwutmethee.
In her study of the ethnic formation of the Tai along the Thai-Burma border, a case study of Piang Luang village, Wandee chronicled a historic event - a turning point of Tai history - the Panglong agreement.
On February 12, 1947, the then Burma Prime Minister Gen Aung San joined the saophas, and representatives of the ethic Chin, Kachin, Kayah, and Mon to sign this agreement. It established the guidelines to govern ethnic minority groups in Burma after independence. The agreement recognised the rights of Shan State to secede after ten years of living with other ethnic groups within the Union of Burma.
The assassination of Aung San and five other Burmese politicians at the constitutional drafting meeting on July 19, 1947 changed this. Aung San's successors, U Nu and Ne Win, had a different policy towards the ethnic minorities from Aung San's. They disagreed with secession, fearing loss of a share of the natural wealth which is abundant in the ethnic minorities' states.
"Ja To Ja Mak Na Kab Kao Yen," I recalled the Tai proverb, "the food turns cold when shared among those who dislike each other." The Burmese military junta are on the one side, and other ethnic minorities on the other.
Ethnic strife broke out soon after various ethnic groups realised secession would never be granted. To add insult to injury, the Shan people continued to suffer more when the Kuomintang army founded its base in Shan State, thus providing an excuse for invasions by Burmese soldiers who claimed they needed to suppress the Kachin rebels they said cooperated with the Kuomintang against Burma.
Torn between the two sides were Tai villagers forced to work as porters and in the battle-fields. Many were killed. After the end of the war between the Kuomintang and the Burmese military government, Rangoon continued its control over the Shan state in total disrespect of the Panglong agreement.
Another Tai proverb came into my mind, "Fon Tok Nam Nong Huay Meo Tob Soi Tae Me (heavy rains cause the stream to overflow) which the Tai use in reference to vengeance.
As described in Wandee's book, Tai leader Sao Noi Saw Yan Ta founded the Tai armed group Noom Suek Han (brave young fighters) in 1958 to fight for independence when Gen Ne Win's government tore up the Panglong commitment.
The group's headquarters were later moved from Sob Jod in Shan State's Muang Pan to today's Piang Luang. However, 40 commander divisions were scattered along the Thai-Burma border from Mae Hong Son's Pang Ma Pha district, to Chiang Mai's Wiang Haeng (Piang Luang village), Chai Prakarn district, Doi Angkhang in Chiang Mai's Fang district, to Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district.
Before the arrival of the Tai armed group and Tai villagers who fled fighting in Burma, Piang Luang was comprised of a few households, mainly Tai traders who plied their trade between Thailand and Shan State.
In 1969 Gen Mo Heng, also known as Sao Kon Jerng, one of the Tai leaders and Sao Noi Saw Yan Ta founded the Shan United Revolution Army (SURA) headed by Mo Heng with Saw Yan Ta as its deputy. They transformed Piang Luang village into a Tai military unit headquarters. The Tai soldiers and their families have since formed the village's major population.
Mo Heng was and still is known and recognised for his nationalist courage and as a devout Buddhist. He was reputed for his fighting spirit. He continued to fight alongside the Noom Suek Harn army, and refused to be discouraged by the loss of his left arm in the fight against the Burmese army in 1959.
The picture of Mo Heng, the one-armed warrior, in the Tai military uniform with his sword and gun, is deeply imprinted in the minds of most Piang Luang's Tai. He refused to have an artificial arm because he intended to symbolise missing arm as a mark of sacrifice and national liberation.
At any mention of Mo Heng the Buddhist devotee, any of Piang Luang's elderly and their fellows in nearby villages will react by raising their hands over their heads to perform a wai, a gesture of highest respect. They recalled that Mo Heng founded the ruined chedi (stupa) thought to be built by the Ayudhya King Naresuan the Great (r.1590-1605), while on his way to fight the Burmese. King Naresuan was also said to have built the Saen Hai stupa, a landmark of Wiang Haeng district.
Mo Heng invited Tai from both sides of the border to renovate the ancient chedi later named "Mara Shina." At the hilltop bordering Thailand and Shan State they built Wat Fa Wiang In temple. When he was spared from fighting, Mo Heng came everyday to meditate at "Hor Sil," a small wooden meditation house close to the temple.
Piang Luang villagers recognise Mo Heng's great contribution in the building of Piang Luang as a Tai community and for his dedication to preserve Tai culture, language, dress, and important traditions. He nurtured traditional practices such as the donation of dharma books to the temple as a form of merit-making for the deceased, the "Tok Sue" - a donation collected for communal purposes, as well as colourful performances like the ram nok (bird) king kala dance, fon to (lion dance), fon dab (sword dance), and a martial-art like fon jerng (jerng dance).
"Poi Sang Long (novice ordination), Poi Tien (the ceremony on the first day of the three-month Buddhist Lent), Poi Hang Nam (Tai water festival), Jad Tai (Tai traditional performance)," I recited some of the Tai traditions.
Piang Luang amidst changes
I have been to Piang Luang many times. After moving into town, I keep returning to the village like I did when I worked as a teacher for children of the ethnic hill people in this area. I sometimes find an excuse to go back to visit friends whose works puts them along the border. At other times, I was back as a journalist, a writer, or simply to find a peaceful state of mind talking to unknown faces with sincere smiles.
Piang Luang has never ceased to excite me.
Once into the village, the main road cuts through the heart of the community. Piang Luang temple with its grand, ancient Tai-style Vihar (place of worship) stands out, facing Piang Luang school on the right hand side. Further up, villagers' houses line the street; then the market and shops operated by both Tai and Chinese. From the hilltop, houses cluster in the tranquil valley.
Piang Luang means great plain.
"From a dozen houses, now (2005) Piang Luang has swollen into over 1,004 households," said one elderly man.
Piang Luang lived a simple, peaceful life in the past; visited once in a while by outsiders. The village's main red-dirt road turned muddy in the rainy season, and cut the village off from the outside world. Electricity had yet to arrive then. However, this does not necessarily mean that there were no inter-village relationships. Tai on both sides of the border have long established economic and cultural relations.
As a Tai community, Piang Luang stands out among others in terms of livelihood, language, culture and traditions passing from generation to generation. Not long ago, traditional Tai houses built on high stilts; with two gables and a rain drainpipe along the middle, and a front kitchen were everywhere to be seen.
But perhaps what caught visitors' attention the most is Tai dress; men usually don traditional kon hong yo, wide-legged, loose trousers with a collarless, long-sleeved, light-brown shirt fasten down the middle with ties, and a turban. Tai women wear a plain sarong (a wrap-around tube skirt) with a waist-length, snug-fitting hand-woven white blouse with front ties. They usually wear a broad cane-woven kub hat to protect against rain and sun when going to the market or working in the field.
Most importantly, they all speak Tai. It's the medium of communication in the community. A few years past and things began to change, some traditions have disappeared. The red-dirt road has been transformed into asphalt; electrical poles have gone up - with it came modernity, some observed. Materially, they might be right; spiritually, I still doubt it.
A recent visit to Piang Luang tells all. Shops mushrooming along the village's main road have become a bustling commercial area. Satellite dishes and mobile phones can be seen among souvenirs, clothes and motorcycles shops. There are lots of motorcycles and cars. Most villagers now dress similarly to the khon muang (Northern Thai) people. Some of the elderly, however, still wear their traditional Tai dress.
After the glory days of Tai culture enthusiastically restored by Gen Mo Heng, it seems now in decline after his death and with the arrival of the Kuomintang army in Piang Luang. The difference in economic status and culture - the Chinese Yunnanese consider themselves to be better-off, educationally and economically - has divided the community into Tai and Chinese blocks, each living on their own.
Furthermore, as the Thai government treats the Tai as displaced, stateless people without citizenship, many villagers do not feel confident about expressing their ethnic identity.
"In the past, whenever I travel into the town's market, I will change my Tai dress into what is normally worn by the lowland people," said Buangernhom, a Tai woman.
The more recent closure of the Thai-Burma border at nearby Ban Lak Taeng has halted the border trade, the economy has suffered and many people have become jobless. The growth in population and the increasing numbers of young villagers seeking work in Chiang Mai town has severely affected the conservation of Tai culture and traditions.
Reference Books - Ethnic Identity Formation of Tai along the Thai-Burma Border: A Case Study of Ban Piang Luang, Wiang Haeng District, Chiang Mai by Wandee Santiwutmethee. - "Tai songs across borderlines" by Thanwa Sirimethee, Salween Post, No. 20, Jan 1 - Feb 15, 2005. - Wat Fa Wiang In: Tai Land by Walaiporn Tha-ai and Wipada Premwuth, Ministry of Education, 2001. Interviews -Khru Sangkham Jaiyord, teacher of Lanna Wisdaom School -Teachers/students Piang Luang school .............................................................................................................................................. First published in "Happiness in the valley," a collection of feature articles by four writers by Sanjai Khon Rak Pa Publishing House, July 2005. The publication was part of the project "learning process for the sustainable empowerment and happiness of the community," under the Institute for the Promotion of Learning for Sustainable Development. Translated by Mukdawan Sakboon
- Ethnic Identity Formation of Tai along the Thai-Burma Border: A Case Study of Ban Piang Luang, Wiang Haeng District, Chiang Mai by Wandee Santiwutmethee.
- "Tai songs across borderlines" by Thanwa Sirimethee, Salween Post, No. 20, Jan 1 - Feb 15, 2005.
- Wat Fa Wiang In: Tai Land by Walaiporn Tha-ai and Wipada Premwuth, Ministry of Education, 2001.
-Khru Sangkham Jaiyord, teacher of Lanna Wisdaom School
-Teachers/students Piang Luang school
First published in "Happiness in the valley," a collection of feature articles by four writers by Sanjai Khon Rak Pa Publishing House, July 2005. The publication was part of the project "learning process for the sustainable empowerment and happiness of the community," under the Institute for the Promotion of Learning for Sustainable Development.
Translated by Mukdawan Sakboon