Conjuncture and Reform in the Late Konbaung Period: How Prophecies, Omens and Rumors Motivated Political Action from 1866 to 1869


Contrary to the modern Western concept of reform, the precolonial Burmese concept of pyu pyin was not linked to the notion of progress, but to the notion of “regeneration.” These reforms, called here “cyclical reforms,” were meant to restore a pristine and ideal order. Their implementation was strongly connected to the “prophetic reading” of a time. Following Buddhist cosmology, wordly affairs reflect cosmic order, so that prophecies, omens, rumors and other extraordinary signs were immediatly reported to the king and interpreted by his experts in wordly matter knowledge (lawki piñña). When these “prophetic readings” were inauspicious, “cyclical reforms” were carried out to restore the socio-cosmic order. But there were also reforms, here called “conjunctural reforms,” which were a more specific response to a changing context. Within this frame work, it is productive to bring the conception and practice of reform during the middle and late Konbaung period (1820s-1880s) under scrutiny. At that time, the Burmese government had to adjust to the coming of a new colonial order. The reign of king Mindon (1853-1878) was particularly rich in major sociopolitical changes and implementation of reforms, which were drafted as a response to the new “conjuncture.”

The years 1866-1869 are particularly formative for two reasons. First, the year 1866 is the major political turn of king Mindon's reign. The heir-apparent, the Kanaung prince, leader of the “conjunctural reform” program after his brother Mindon took power, was murdered during a coup d’etat in August. Thereafter, king Mindon led both “cyclical” and “conjunctural” reforms until changes in the international context of Burma in the 1870s put an end to his attempts. Second, these years are particularly well-documented, both in vernacular and western primary sources. Only a careful and close examination of both types of sources will allow us to analyze how “prophetic” information was interpreted and understood at the Burmese court and allow us to see how this understanding influenced decision-making and choices of the appropriate type of reform, whether “cyclical”—a reversion to normative or ideal conditions—or “conjunctural”—a creation of a new precedent.