Politics, religion, ethnicity and many other social constructs play a significant role in the names that people use to identify things. Sometimes these are done with consideration and sometimes the opposite. Shanland is a region of Earth plagued by war and political conflict, which has resulted in different entities applying names to the land and the people.
The area of land that Shan people claim to be their own is called “Muang Tai” in Shan and various other Tai languages.
The word “Muang” is a Tai word, originally meaning a town with a defensive wall, but came to essentially mean the same thing as “country, land, nation”, etc.
“Tai”, is a word meaning “Free, independent”. Ideas of freedom and independence have always been part of traditional Tai culture, and the idea that in the ancient times, groups of people who stood up to tyranny came together and created the Tai people; the free people, is an origin that makes every Shan proud.
Is Tai the same as Thai?
As stated before, the meaning of Tai relates to the concept of freedom and independence. Those who were called Tai were those who were free. When the ancient Tai spread out throughout Southeast Asia and created the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya Kingdoms, perhaps there was a language shift, and the word for Tai began to be pronounced with an aspirated T, thus turning into the word “Thai”. (Ages before the great migration, the Tai people had already begun to split into different principalities with different dialects forming naturally). The etymology of the word is the same, meaning freedom and independent, but the term “Thai” is only used to refer to Thailand and Thailanders.
Thai should never be synonymous with Tai or Shan, however, as the Shans are a different Tai tribe. Although this may seem extremely confusing to an English speaker, it’s entirely understandable for Shan people.
Shan is the Burmese and English name for Tai, but the etymology of the word has a different origin.
There are two theories to the origin of the word Shan; the first being that it comes from the Burmese pronunciation of “Siam” which is the old name of Thailand.
The second theory is that Shan comes from the Chinese word for mountains as it shares the same etymology for the Bai word for mountain. (The Bai people are an ethnic group living in Yunnan, which is where the Shan people originally came from).
Despite these origins, “Shan” now only exists as the English and Burmese translation of “Tai”, and should be treated as such.
“Shan State” is the Myanmar Government’s official name for the region, and it is called so to emphasise the current situation of the Shan, as a minority state within the union. Many Shans will call their homeland “Shan State” for the sake of simplicity, unfortunately, as the Shan situation is not well known outside of Myanmar.
Shanland is a name used by Shan Nationalists and even some scholars who have researched in the country. The reason why Shan nationalists use “land” instead of “state” is due to the idea of the Shans being independent and owning their own country, rather than just being a state of another country.
Shanland is also a direct English translation of Muang Tai, with no other meaning, making it easy for Shan nationalists to express their political views in English and find meaning in the English register of their country.
What name should we use?
In English, I would prefer to call my country “Shanland”, as it sounds powerful, flows off the tongue well and feels like a legitimate name of a country. I feel awkward calling my country Shan State due to my nationalist views. As stated before, it is also a direct translation of the Shan name of the nation, and thus I feel the same sense of pride using Shanland as I would when saying “Muang Tai” when speaking Shan. The same is for Burmese; you will usually hear me and other Shans call our country “Shan Pyi” rather than “Shan pyi ne” (Pyi = country, pyi ne = State).
In Shan, the country has always been called Muang Tai, and the Shan name has never reflected any concept of our nation being a state of another. Thus the English and Burmese translations should follow this example.
One day, the Shans will liberate themselves and finally have the meaning of our country’s name in our language be accurately transcribed in other ones, and never face the injustices we suffered in the past again, moving forward as one people and one nation with one destiny.