The Tribes of Burma/Mon Khmer Wave

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Geographically the Mon Khmer country lies as a whole well to the east of the Tibeto-Burman, for the most part in French Indo-China and Yunnan, and it is only a few of the westernmost Mon Khmer communities (the Takings of Lower Burma and the Was, the Palaungs and the Yangs or Rlangs of Upper Burma and the Shan States) that fall within the boundaries of the Province and the scope of the present note. The Cambodians and the Annamese have afforded scholars ample opportunity of studying the Mon Khmer problem in French territory. The researches of Messrs. Skeat and Blagden have shown that the Mon Khmer influence is felt far down in the Malay Peninsula. It has now been established that the Khasis of Assam have a Mon Khmer origin,[1] but it is a far cry from the Palaungs (their nearest cognates in Burma) to the Khasis, and it must often have struck observers in the past as anomalous that there should be no Mon Khmer tribes north and north-east of the Palaungs through whom the Southern Mon Khmers might be connected not only with the Khasis but also with their primaeval home, which, there is every reason to believe, lay far north of their present seats. So little has been known of the tribes of South-West China heretofore that for long the gap has remained unfilled. Now however, Major Davies,[2] after a careful study of vocabularies, puts forward a suggestion which to the. present writer seems an eminently reasonable one, namely, that the Miaotzus, the reputed aborigines of Yunnan, as well as the Minchias and Yaos of South-West China are Mon Khmers. If this is so—and there is certainly a mass of linguistic evidence to bear the theory out—we have the missing chain leading us up northwards to a point near the 28th parallel of latitude where the ancestors of the Khasis may reasonably be supposed to have branched off south-westwards from the main Mon Khmer body along the valley of the Brahmaputra. However this may be, the question need not detain us; we are here directly concerned not with the Miaotzus and Yaos but with the tribes on the western fringe of the Mon Khmer country. These are now separated from their original home and their relations in part by the Tibeto-Burman swarms which must have spread over the country long centuries ago, in part at a far more recent date by the irruption of the Tais. When this latter movement began, some six centuries after the commencement of the Christian era, the Mon Khmers had in Cambodia and in the Talaing country of Lower Burma already attained to some measure of civilization. Pressing southwards along the Sal ween and Mekong valleys, the Tai new-comers, the ancestors of the Shans, the Laos and the Siamese, passed down the western edge of the Mon Khmer country, severing the outermost communities from their sister communities in the east. In this way the Mons or Talaings of Pegu were completely cut off by a Tai belt from Cambodia, and the Palaungs, the Yangs and the Was of the Shan States were more or less isolated from their near relatives in the south-east. Before this, however, the Talaings had started carving out a political destiny for themselves, their long residence in the plains having caused them to diverge widely in speech from the hill tribes of similar ancestry who lay to the east of them. Thus it is that the affinities between Talauig and the other Mon Khmer languages in Burma are somewhat remote, though not so remote as to allow of any doubt being thrown on the theory of relationship. On the other hand, Wa, Palaung and Yang are closely connected with each other and with the Kamu spoken in Siamese and French territory, and, though they would deny it themselves, there is no doubt that the speakers of all four vernaculars have a common origin and are related more or less closely not only to the Talaings, the Cambodians and the Annamesebut to also to a number of hill tribes in French territory and (if Major Davies' theory is correct) Yunnan also.

  1. The Khasis. P. R. T. Gurdon, London, 1907, page 10.
  2. Yünnan: The Link between India and the Yangtze. Major H. R. Davies, Cambridge, 1909.