AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 604

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Session 604: Writing Burmese history in the aftermath of Michael Aung Thwin's The Mists of Ramanna - Sponsored by Burma Studies

Organizer and Chair: Lilian Handlin, Independent Scholar, USA

Discussant: Michael A. Aung-Thwin, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

Michael Aung Thwin's The Mists of Ramanna considerably recast received conceptions of early Burmese history and exposed for the first time in detail, the problems of several core assumptions about how that history was written. This book, as well as his earlier Pagan, The Origins of Modern Burma, and numerous articles and reviews, introduced to the subject of Burmese history current scholarly conceptualizations. Aung Thwin's work significantly reformulated our understanding of the Burmese past as an 'autonomous history' while informing the broader field of South East Asian studies. A tribute to his work and an assessment of its significance is long overdue. The assembled panel, convened by a historian, to include linguists, an anthropologist and an archaeologist, represents the trajectory of Aung Thwin's seminal ideas. The panelists' scholarship suggests widening interest in Burmese history and its international dimensions. The group also illustrates how varied intellectual communities, each with vocabularies and concerns of their own, interact. Their papers instantiate the cumulative facet of knowledge production and how seminal scholarship generates controversies whose utility exceeds parochial interests. The panel shows how Burma's early and later history is informed by local and transregional developments and how a country, so 'Asian' in some respects and buffeted by boundary crossing and transcultural influences, yet remained resolutely ' Burmese.' The panel presentations and the scholarship they celebrate and expand upon, contributed to our understanding of this phenomenon.

In search of the Dhammaraja ideal in modern Burmese contexts
Juliane Schober, Arizona State University, USA

Can we envision a postcolonial future of the Burmese conception of traditional kingship, the dhammaraja? In the course of more than six decades since independence from British colonial rules, Burma has struggled to develop the sorts of civil institutions that are the foundation for secular and civilizan governance. And in a symbolic gesture to underscore their political legitimacy, several of the country's post independence leaders suggested that they were descendants of past dynasties. In this paper I take my departure from Michael Aung Thwin's 1985 essay "British p[acification of Burma, order without meaning" (JSEAS, 16 (2):245-61). Indeed Aung Thwin's work on this topic represents a continuation of a central debate among Burma scholars since the 1960s (Sarkisyanz, mendelson, ferguson, Lehman, Tambiah and others) that focussed on the political and cultural structures that shaped institutions of governance and relations between the state and Buddhist authority. In the absence of strong secular values of governance, are Buddhist notions of authority likely to challenge existing political structures? Or is a post colonial synthesis between a secular state and Buddhist values likely to emerge? This paper explores the recent history of the ideals of the dhammaraja and the ways in which these have been articulated in Burmese culture in order to delineate current cultural debates about the relevance of traditional notions of kingship in Burma.

Wadee, a newly excavated Pyu city
Myo Nyunt Aung, Pagan Museum, USA

Wadee, located in the Mandalay Division of Central Myanmar, is an exciting recent archaeological excavation. This paper introduces important new findings hitherto unfamiliar to the international scholarly community. The site, unknown to Myanmar's famous chroniclers, reveals an important Pyu settltment, one of the nine towns flourishing during the SriKsetra period, dated to the 4th - to the 9th centuries. Nine stone inscriptions found in the vicinity, shed further light on the city's fortunes. My work builds on the scholarship of U Aung Myint, who discovered Wadee's circular city walls and named the site, in a seminar 1979 paper. The 2008 and subsequent excavation seasons under my direction uncovered portions of gateways, a religious building, burial urns, beads, cooking vessels and iron objects. These findings and other evidence suggest an affinity with the larger Pyu site at Beikhtano. Cylindrical cups, associated with Bronze Age sites like Mahlaing and Budalin, show that Wadee was more ancient than better known Pyu settlements. Poor masonry work indicates an early developmental stage. The use of coinage for currency in commercial transactions and their symbolic marks, place Wadee in a network of trade routes. These and other conclusions of my work need to be integrated into the broader narrative of Myanmar history, substantiating Aung Thwin's arguments in favor of crucial Pyu influence on the region's later development.

Anawrahta's Camelot: Arimaddanapura - Bagan and Burmese historiography
Geok Yian Goh, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Michael Aung Thwin's seminal work, The Mists of Ramanna, contains an allusion to Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, a novel on the Arthurian legends. His title hearkens back to an era of Burmese historiography when views of Burmese classical kingdoms were influenced by medieval European tales of chivalry and the legend of King Arthur. Aung Thwin does not stand alone in this regard. Earlier scholars such as Phayre, Luce and Sangermano wrote in styles similar to Mallory. In this paper, I discuss the characterization of Anawrahta and Pagan as paralells to Arthur and Camelot. I will also situate the study of Anawrahta/Arthur and Bagan/Camelot within the context of Southeast Asian historiography traditions. Do we find parallels with other historical writings of Southeast Asia? Can we talk of a kind of universalism in writing epic histories of kings and kingdoms? An important legacy of Aung-Thwin's work is his close scrutiny of early writings of Burmese history; have we become more assiduous in our examination of primary and secondary sources? What is the current state of Burmese historiography?

Pyu and Mon in early Burmwese history, a look at the linguistic evidence
Julian K. Wheatley, Independent Scholar, USA

My paper will examine the linguistic features of Pyu and Mon interaction in light of the available historical evidence . Michael Aung Thwin's recent reinterpretation of that evidence called into question long-assumed truisms scattered across the Burmese historical naarrative. His reinterpretation also subverts some linguistic assumptions about the interaction between these ethnic groups, and how the relationship between their languages and script impacted the development of the Burmese language.

Michael Aung-Thwin's Work: the anthropological and linguistic background
Frederic K. Lehman, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA

Since Michael Aung Thwin was my pupil during his work here, I have worked closely with him ever since and advised him in particular, at his request, upon anthropological and linguistic matters, especially regarding his work on the Mon. Therefore, my presentation will be a documentation of our discussions on these matters. The paper will demonstrate that Aung-Thwin has been especially sensitive to such concerns in his historical work. This is important because of the controversial nature of his conclusions, in his work on the Shan and the Mon.