Thursday, 13 December 2012

Review: 'A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times', by Michael and Maitrii Aung-Thwin

Although I am relatively new to Burmese history and historiography, I like to think I know a fair amount about southeast Asia as a whole.  As such, I feel confident enough to take a break from epistemology to review the book I've just been reading, A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times, by historians Michael Aung-Thwin and Maitrii Aung-Thwin (2012, London: Reaktion Books).  The book deals with the history of Myanmar from 40,000 BCE to the present in a little under three hundred pages, but I am only concerned with the first 140 pages or so - from the arrival of H. erectus to the declines of Ava (Inwa) and Pegu in the early sixteenth century (while I find the recent history of Myanmar interesting, my purpose in reading the book was to gain an understanding of prehistoric and ancient times).

The first point to make is that the writing is clear but combative, even pugnacious (as another reviewer, Ian Brown from SOAS, has pointed out).  The authors want to correct errors in the traditional account of Myanmar and don't mince their words doing it, which is quite refreshing.  As this book is about the role of the state in Myanmar - the only possible route when enquiring into the early history of the region given the nature of the evidence, I might add - the authors are attempting to counter-act Scott's Art of Not Being Governed, which focuses on the hill tribes.  On the other hand, this book was written by historians, and it shows.  While other works on prehistory and ancient history draw on archaeological research, it is evident that the Aung-Thwins are more conversant with historical schools and ideas.  As this is the only recent book to attempt to cover the span of human life in the country in anything like a comprehensive manner, it's somewhat disappointing to see this historical focus, as it means that the early chapters, on prehistory and the early historic period - the ones I am most interested in - are stilted, short, and relatively insubstantial.

This would not make a great introduction to Myanmar to anyone who knows nothing about southeast Asia.  The Cholas, Srivijaya, Angkor, Champa, and Nanzhao are all referenced with little explanation, which could easily be confusing if you aren't aware of them beforehand.  On top of this, the writing, while perfectly clear to those experienced in academic writing, is a bit convoluted for a popular audience.  One of my pet peeves is also lamentably present: the use of Wade-Giles transliteration for Chinese ('Nanchao' for Nanzhao, for instance).  This is a bit like using the terms Hindoo and Mohametan, and it should stop.  It isn't appropriate in a work of 2012, and it just looks silly.

There are also a few errors or omissions in the early sections.  While archaeology in Myanmar is certainly under-developed, there is very little point in pretending that the book is comprehensive when it deals with all of the developments from the arrival of H. erectus through to the origins of urbanism in Myanmar in nine pages.  This puts the succeeding discussion of urbanisation on an uneven footing; there is little explanation provided in the book about why the bronze- and iron-working people of Upper Myanmar ended up building and living in cities, nor, even, any explanation of how bronze and iron ended up being worked in southeast Asia in the first place.  Compare this to the excellent discussions of Angkor's rise, on the back of an understanding of Neolithic and Iron Age southeast Asia, in Charles Higham's and Michael Coe's works.  I appreciate that this is in part due to the nature of the archaeological evidence in under-funded Myanmar, but I find it hard to believe that even this small amount of evidence can be properly summed up in nine pages of text.  India's role in southeast Asia is also given a very limited place in this account, which is unfortunate - the authors are clearly seeking to emphasise the indigenous nature of Myanma civilisation, but this is difficult to do if you avoid a serious discussion of how Indian influence and Buddhism entered Myanmar in the first place.

Moreover, the question of whether southeast Asians descend from H. erectus is left open, but the answer is, of course, known: Homo sapiens sapiens evolved primarily in Africa, moving to other parts of the world after H. erectus, and all human populations descend from a single recent African H. sapiens sapiens population rather than from dispersed H. erectus populations.  This is presented as a controversy in the Aung-Thwins' book when it is nothing of the sort.  And what is more, to be unaware that the evidence from Spirit Cave, once claimed (by Wilhelm Solheim) to show proof of the earliest known agriculture in the world, is now considered to be totally wrong and poorly interpreted is a sin for someone writing a general history of any part of southeast Asia (this, too, is presented as a controversy, when it is anything but).

There is also some confusion in the book about scripts.  I'm not sure if this reflects the authors' own level of knowledge or whether it was felt necessary to dumb down discussion of how writing arrived in Myanmar, but the script that entered southeast Asia is erroneously called 'Sanskrit', which is the name of a language, not a script (the script that influenced southeast Asian writing most was, of course, Pallava, a south Indian script derived from Brahmi via Tamil Brahmi, and ultimately from some unknown North Semitic source).  There is also little about the nature of Myanma epigraphy.  As epigraphic evidence is foremost in understanding ancient southeast Asia, this is a major omission, and - as a relative neophyte - I am left unsure about what evidence there is of the Pyu, Pali, and Sanskrit languages in Myanmar, let alone Old and Middle Burmese.  A few examples of inscriptions - transliterations and translations** - would have been nice.

There are good things about the book.  For instance, the focus on clearing up misconceptions in Myanma historiography was very helpful, especially as it removed a couple of problems I was having with the so-called 'Pyu' era (the label is rejected by the Aung-Thwins in favour of, simply, 'The Urban Period', c.200 BCE - 900 CE).  I also liked the emphasis on the state, which, partly due to the work of James Scott, has not received its fair share of attention.  While it is quite easy to find books on ancient Thai kingdoms, Angkor, and even Champa, there are very few on Pagan, Ava, and Pegu, and the most recent work touching on Myanmar to receive popular and academic acclaim focused primarily on non-state peoples (Scott's aforementioned book).  This only leads academic attention away from southeast Asia as a source of civilisation and the state, meaning that evidence from the region relevant to academic dissections of the origins of social inequality and urbanisation are ignored or seen as derivative of Indian influence.

This is a reasonable general survey, but it's unclear who its market is; laymen won't know enough about other southeast Asian states to make reading this history worthwhile, and the theoretical focus - 'agency' and the Annales School, &c. - isn't going to earn it any favours in the popular market.  Other southeast Asianists are unlikely to benefit from the superficial covering of Myanma prehistory, and the use of archaic transliterations limits its use by Sinologists, amongst others.

This is also quite a conversative work.  While I approve of the emphasis on the state, in that it provides a clear window into the past, it seems to me that at least some of the emphasis on cultural continuity and the 'golden age' of Pagan - depicted a little too beneficently, if you ask me - derives from a strain of patriotism or common feeling for Myanmar's people and culture, which isn't exactly what I was looking for (I like to know facts, not nationalistic narratives).  Much of the discussion of Ava - once thought to be a 'dark age' in Myanmar's history - seemed swayed by the desire to portray it in a positive, nationalistic, light, and the rejection of major Shan and Mon influence on Myanmar's subsequent development seemed like it carried a political edge.  (To see these tensions in practice, take a look at the comments on this video - clearly Myanmar nationalism and the various ethnic identities have a rather fraught relationship.)

Nevertheless, this is really the only general survey out there, and unless you want to piece together your own history of Myanmar from the short range of academic articles and old books out there, then this is the place to go for Myanmar's history.  It is pacy, easy reading if you don't mind the academic style, and the information is important - Pagan was about as big an influence in Asian history as Angkor and is much less known due to political circumstance.  The maps are quite good, and I have no doubt that the history of the British presence in Myanmar ('Burma') and the post-independence era is of high quality (and that is, truth be told, probably what most people reading the book really want).

Again, I am relatively new to the history of Myanmar, and I may be barking up the wrong tree or stomping all over well-worn academic controversies without being aware of it.

* The issue of 'Burma' vs. 'Myanmar' is discussed in an introductory note; neither Burma nor Myanmar is an entirely appropriate name, because 'Burma' (from Bama) is an Anglicism and 'Myanmar', while indigenous, is actually derived from an adjective rather than a noun.  It should be called Myanma Pyay, but it seems unlikely that anyone will ever adopt this as the name outside of Myanma Pyay itself.

** Examples of the original script would be even better, but those only seem to crop up in nineteenth century tomes and recent archaeological articles, not attempts at comprehensive histories.  Pallava gets my vote for 'world's most beautiful script', by the way (just don't confuse it with Grantha, as many people seem to, and as that wiki article does).


  1. A wonderful review and critique! Over the last year, I've been piecing together exactly what you describe in your penultimate paragraph (a piecemeal history of Myanmar gathered from broader books about S.E. Asia and the random Myanmar-focused historical works available). I live in Laos, where it's difficult to access books, and I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of the Aung-Thwins' work this winter.

    I agree with most of your points, and I don't think you've stepped on any well-worn controversies (as far as my armchair academics' scope will allow me to see, anyway). The Aung-Thwins' voice is pretty singular in the current discourse on Myanmar. As Thant Myint-U (the author of the River of Lost Footsteps, probably the reigning champion of popular histories of Myanmar) points out, most public discussion of Myanmar is weirdly ahistorical. I appreciate Michael and Maitrii Aung-Thwin for their willingness to take a strong position on the history of Myanmar, because nobody else is offering it: now, at least, people like us have a text to read and agree or argue with.

    Still, there are moments in "A History of Myanmar" that make me roll my eyes. You articulate the oddities of their stance well: It's a kind of patriotism, or at least nationalism. I have wondered frequently while reading this book whether or not they're just trying to please some friends in Naypyidaw who hold the keys to lucrative archives. The laudatory tone with which they address Pagan didn't surprise me, but I was a little bewildered by the praise they heap on the Ava-Pegu period. In some respects, they seem to fetishize the militaristic rulers of those two nation/city-states in a way that eerily echoes the fascination of the current Myanmar military.

    Anyway, I appreciate their continued resistance to the "good-evil struggle" paradigm, even if I wish they were a bit more critical of the military (has the Burmese military really ever "restored order," as they state in the final chapter?). I look forward to the other books that participate in this discussion and the Aung-Thwins' future efforts. Thanks for the review!

    1. Clarifications: by "reigning champion" I mean champion in terms of widespread exposure (in S.E. Asia, I meet heaps of people who've read Myint-U's work), and by "people like us" I mean people interested in the history of Myanmar.

    2. I've been re-reading a bit of the Aung-Thwin book in writing a piece of my own, and while I approve of some of the arguments - say, about the rise of urbanisation in Lower Myanmar - I find some of them bizarre. For instance, the definitive arrival of Mranma people into Myanmar seems to have occurred with the Nanzhao invasion in the early 9th century. That's the earliest reference to people who later became Burmese. But the Aung-Thwins claim that Mranma people were probably in Myanmar before this, making up a key component of the Pyu city-states. I don't think this is justified by any evidence and seems to be predicated on the notion that the Mranma have to be indigenous. That certainly made my eyes roll!


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