The Mons are credited with bringing Buddhism and a written culture to mainland Southeast Asia. The Thai Mon manuscripts represent a gap in the intellectual history of Burma and Thailand, and the connection between the two. Studying these will enrich our understanding of intellectual developments in nineteenth century Siam.
The Mons of Thailand and Burma supported a palm-leaf manuscript tradition into the 1920s. Historical, archaeological, art-historical and linguistic scholarship on Southeast Asia emphasises the central role of the Mons in mainland southeast Asia during the first millennium CE, which has shaped the histories of Burma, Thailand, and of the Mons themselves. Yet because of the emphasis on the first millennium, few have studied the Mons in more recent centuries. These manuscripts are key to bringing out the recent history, cultural transmission, and linguistic information related to language contact and multilingualism.
Changing politics started to work against the Mons, putting their heritage in Siam in danger. New laws prohibited the use of any language other than Central Thai for education, which put an end to Mon literacy. Today, very few Thai Mons can read Mon. The neglected manuscripts are burned or sold in small pieces as souvenirs.
The project visited over 30 sites, and found Mon-language manuscripts in 18 of them. The team was given access to 15 of the 18 collections and digitised 49 texts. The project was key to create relationships with custodians and to assess the collection. A major digitisation project on this collection was started in 2022.